Berlinale 2015: Malick is Back & Better Than Ever with 'Knight of Cups'
by Alex Billington
February 8, 2015
Malick is back! Terrence Malick, I mean, the master filmmaker who never makes public appearances and can sometimes take years to finish editing his films. This time he tackles Hollywood itself, presenting a mesmerizing criticism of the hedonism of Hollywood in a film called Knight of Cups starring Christian Bale as an actor who pretends to be anyone but himself. The film just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival to cheers from critics at the morning press screening. Malick finally found his groove, and Knight of Cups is his best film in years, perhaps even better than The Tree of Life. It weaves a very thin narrative around some of the same metaphysical, religious, meaning-of-life themes that he first began exploring in The Tree of Life.
Most of Malick's recent films feature his signature swooping, sweeping, flying camera style, that drifts right up into the face of his actors, then back out and all around them. With his film To The Wonder, it doesn't work and becomes dull quickly. But with The Tree of Life (shot by renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) it works wonders, adding so much of the mystery, and Malick takes it even further with Knight of Cups (also shot by Lubezki). Yes, there's more of this style and the film is made up mostly of drifting shots with the sun gleaming somewhere in the background. But it works so well this time, and helps the film soar to dazzling new heights, adding so much greater depth beyond what we're seeing and hearing on the surface.
There's not much of a story to Knight of Cups, but it is about one man – Rick, played by Christian Bale. With commanding voiceover that sounds like ancient wisdom, we learn about a man who has spent his life pretending to be anyone but himself. Over the course of the film, he longs for true love and meets four different remarkably beautiful women at various times in his life: Della, played by Imogen Poots; Karen, played by Teresa Palmer; Helen, played by Freida Pinto; and finally Elizabeth, played by Natalie Portman. My first-pass interpretation is that these women are the most important parts of his life, guiding him, giving him reason to live, to be, and yet he still can't figure out who he really is even with them around.
It's hard to put my finger on it and explain why I loved this film so much, even more than The Tree of Life, but it has something to do with the way the drifting narrative and story about life becomes something much more meaningful part of the way through. Eventually it seems as if Malick became tired with the Hollywood storyline, showing us every last studio backlot and corner of Los Angeles, and instead decides to shift the narrative back to the existential feelings explored in The Tree of Life. It returns to the idea of questioning who we are, what our point is, and how we maintain our identity in a world where we all too often succumb to the lavishness of societal decadence. All accented by lovely melodies of composer Hanan Townshend.
There's a lot to process and think about with Knight of Cups, beyond what he shows regarding Hollywood and its extravagance. There's so much footage, so many random artistic moments, discussions, moments of dialogue, contemplative shots of interaction, that's it hard to sift through all of it and make sense of it in one sitting. It's easy to get lost in Terrence Malick's films, but especially with Knight of Cups (and The Tree of Life), considering it's so much more of a mesmerizing, awe-inspiring experience than a feature film we're supposed to consume and forget about in one sitting. For some, the voiceover might be too much, but it never bothered me. It helped provide even more understanding of what we were seeing and what Malick was trying to get at, even if it was a bit obvious. All this builds to something more profound than I was expecting.
It's not that Malick is doing anything "new", per se, he's sticking with the same style he has been for years. It's just that this story, with these ideas and presented in this way, resonates (with me) much more than any of his other recent films. One of my favorite moments in Knight of Cups is when it's talking about the way we endlessly pursue what we can't have, and yet will never get to it, even though we're always trying no matter the results. The footage we're seeing on screen shows dogs jumping into a pool trying to snap at tennis balls thrown underwater, and yet every time they try to grab one, they can't reach it. It's such a poetic and beautiful way to capture that feeling we all have. And this is just one small moment in a grandiose film.
Malick's Knight of Cups is a gorgeous, mesmerizing, pensive trip into exploring who we are and why we act the way we do. One of its most powerful aspects is the use of a passage from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress for the voiceover, providing more for us to think about and chew on as we consider our place in this world. There really is no discernible conclusion, and some may feel lost by the film, but others may feel like they've been given a chance to find themselves. It's an exquisite companion piece to The Tree of Life, and may be Malick's best film since Days of Heaven, showing that he's still capable of creating masterful cinematic experiences that make us admire the beauty, the humanity, the remarkableness of life around us.
Alex's Berlinale 2015 Rating: 9.5 out of 10
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