Simply put, Terrence Malick is one of the greatest observers of human experience in all of modern cinema and possibly of all time. He trains his camera, his cinematic eye, on his hypnotically knotted subjects so naturally and with such immediacy that it feels as though the images are unfolding in real time, just on the other side of that tangible screen before us. It’s astonishing when you consider that Malick’s latest, Knight of Cups, isn’t some slice-of-life drama aiming to capture star Christian Bale in his element, but rather a kaleidoscopic vision of life as stream of consciousness dreamscape mystery.
At times, it practically feels like Malick, Bale, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are just messing around, experimenting with swooping shots and contemplative stares in the desert, wandering around a studio backlot together, and diving headfirst into the energetic enthusiasm of a lavish Hollywood party. Except when Malick and Lubezki play, they make magic, so assessing whether the apparent spontaneity is reality or illusion becomes an act of swooning in the presence of geniuses.
What feels spontaneous also looks often technically complex and the beauty of Malick is that seeming juxtaposition is not only fascinating to witness, but also thrillingly adept at capturing the complexities of life. Everything unfolds quickly and almost effortlessly, only with great amounts of effort. It’s a cinematic contradiction that Malick has perfected, transforming countless hours of production shooting and post-production editing into bursts of cinematic vigour that feel poetically plucked from the now.
With this level of skill and artistry, one hardly needs a story to hang the images on, but Malick still attempts something of a character arc for Christian Bale's malaise-plagued screenwriter. There's no plot and an attempted synopsis would basically boil down to "Bale wanders around L.A. and romances many women," which hardly touches on all the times he roams around rooftops and dawdles in the desert. He does have many dalliances with actresses ranging from big stars like Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman to more random, though surprisingly inspired players like Isabel Lucas and Imogen Poots.
Everyone's equal in a Malick movie, making the cast an eclectic mix of varying star wattage. When Bale’s wayward screenwriter attends a bustling, sprawling celebrity bash, he’s greeted by a suavely snappy Antonio Banderas, whose appearance feels best categorized as a cameo until you also spot Jason Clarke and Joe Manganiello playing themselves onscreen for all of two seconds each. There are no parts too small in a Malick picture.
For all their talent, the actors in Malick's grasp are pawns on a level playing field, not disposable or interchangeable, but somehow stripped of their artifice, dancing in some other reality that’s intriguing because every performance and appearance is so fluidly and fluently filtered through the filmmaker’s vibrant vocabulary of movement.
Knight of Cups is not an acting showcase and yet the actors are integrally woven into the fabric of the electrifying experience. No one's going to rave that this is Blanchett's best performance in years and not only because she’s given some of her actual best performances in the past few years. Rather, it seems that the actors all acknowledge that this is Malick’s world and they’re just happy and lucky to be inhabiting it.
This all reinforces the feeling that Malick’s maw is consuming every frame, every cinematic element that our senses can detect. To embark on the quest and pilgrimage that unseen narrator Ben Kingsley refers to early on in the experience, we must first tumble down the Malickian rabbit hole and then take a sumptuously swirling swim through the filmmaker’s marvelous mind, because to watch Malick is to see as Malick, to be Malick.
Knight of Cups is all about understanding a life through images and navigating a mind through words. It tells its elliptical story as only Malick can, curiously, gloriously, mysteriously. There’s meaning waiting to be read in every nook and cranny of the narrative, from the chapters titled after Tarot cards to the way characters communicate almost exclusively with thoughts instead of speech. A playful score courtesy of Hanan Townshend lends the freely flowing images a lyrical lilt.
There’s so much to take in for the entirety of this lovely, unshakable picture, from the simple pleasure of beholding the strangeness of the cast, which also oddly includes Wes Bentley and Brian Dennehy, to the overwhelming opportunity to bask in the beauty of Lubezki’s lensing. But of course, all roads circle back to Malick. As singular an artist as any in American cinema, he seems to be striding confidently into more texturally abstract territory with each new movie, sharing his fears and dreams and hopes and ideas and welcoming us to join him, to participate in all things shining, cinematic art lit lovingly from above.