Nothing would be easier than telling you that Terrence Malick’s new film “Knight of Cups” is pretentious, narcissistic twaddle. You can, if you choose, do the simplest possible online search and find critics telling you something like that.
I can’t do it, though, because I think it’s an authentic marvel by one of the great living poets of American film.
But in saying that I have to be honorable enough to get across that Malick’s movies in general – including this one – are so far from conventional Hollywood narratives that they frustrate and annoy the bejabbers out of those who want movies with simpler and more linear narrative pleasures.
If you have ever loved a Malick film or if you’re interested in cinematic adventure in its purest uncommercial form in a commercial American movie, you are advised to run, don’t walk, to “Knight of Cups.” See it and puzzle it out later.
It is, in simplest synopsis, the tale of a Hollywood screenwriter who’s become lost in the world despite the concern of his father and younger brother and many women, all of whom are beautiful, even by Los Angeles actress standards (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots and Isabel Lucas, as five of them.)
Malick does not tell simple stories. He does tell stories though. It’s just that he tells this one through impressionistic, dreamlike wisps of dialogue and voice-over that do not follow events the way A, B, C and D do. They are the director’s stream of consciousness.
And yet the story here is far from difficult. The movie seems to me, if anything, a 21st century Los Angeles update of some towering 20th century Italian masterworks – Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Antonioni’s “L’ Avventura,” “La Notte” and “L’Eclisse.”
What happens is clear enough: Christian Bale plays an L.A. screenwriter who is adrift. “He forgot he was the son of a king,” is the way he puts it in his narration.
His life is full of events – geological (an earthquake), social (upscale parties), occupational (lucrative offers from producers) and sexual (many women, including Blanchett as his ex-wife, a doctor who specializes in treating the homeless, and Portman as a married woman.)
Among the things that make “Knight of Cups” a marvel is this: No one sees the beauty of Los Angeles like Malick. His cinematographer is current master Emmanuel Lubezki, and this is a Los Angeles you have never come close to seeing before. “You see the palm trees” is the screenwriter’s poetic way of explaining L.A. “They’re telling you anything is possible.”
It is part of this movie’s vulnerability that it is the Los Angeles that is only known to those of film world wealth, not that of the middle or lower class.
So many things one sees are redolent of money. Our screenwriter goes to parties where one sees Ryan O’Neal kibitzing. And the great writer Peter Matthiessen. And Antonio Banderas, as a wealthy Angeleno chuckling as he explains his sexual ethic: One can like raspberries but every so often one needs strawberries.
The soundtrack consists of snippets from some of the most beautiful music in all of Western classical music – Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis” and Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt,” most prominently.
But there is grave misery here. One of the screenwriter’s younger brothers has died. (0ne of Malick’s two brothers – a guitarist – died, an apparent suicide.) His father, played by Brian Dennehy, with a bent-over hunchback profile appropriate for Willie Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” is suffering. His younger brother (Wes Bentley) seems to be an emotional mess.
The only truly ambiguous moment in the film, in fact, is what some writers are taking to be a home break-in but which seemed to me quite possibly an intimidation technique to collect drug money owed by one of his brothers. (“I loved my brother. I hated him too … It’s like a snake swallowed him.”)
As the title indicates, the story is told in sections that correspond to Tarot cards – “The Hermit,” “The Moon,” “The Hanged Man,” “Death.”
Look up the divinatory meaning of the Knight of Cups for those who tell Tarot fortunes and you’ll find it indicates new life aspirations and changes of fortune but with few accomplishments to match. Something is going to come, but it’s unclear what.
Malick is hardly the first to use Tarot cards as a marvelously symbolic organizing principle. (See Italo Calvino’s “The Castle of Crossed Destinies”), but the way he uses it is so tantalizing and, as with so much of this story, elusive from the audience’s immediate grasp the way so much great poetry is (one does not “instantly” grasp a lot of Shakespeare).
Why is this not navel-gazing hooey? Because it is incredibly beautiful to look at. No one sees the world like Malick. And because the mood is always explicit even though events fit together in dreamlike tangents. And because, at odd moments, Malick will drop your jaw in wonderment.
A classic Malick scene; Portman plays a women cheating on her husband with screenwriter Rick. Their affair is suddenly fraught with a pregnancy. As she tells Rick of it, Malick’s camera gets lost in the beauty of the open weaves of the bulky sweater she’s wearing and how beautiful she looks in it, while storms of her tears are shed. This extraordinary film poet shows you Rick’s ache in a visual way while he hears what has become of their romantic idyll.
Nothing would be easier to mock. Pauline Kael used to mock Fellini and Antonioni as makers of “come as you are, sick soul of Europe” parties. But watch those movies now. They can haunt you.
In a lesser way, so can “Knight of Cups” – but only if it’s on your wavelength. If not, God help you.
"Knight of Cups"
3.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas and Freida Pinto
Director: Terrence Malick
Running time: 118 minutes
Rating: R for some nudity, sex and rough language.
The Lowdown: New film by Terrence Malick about a spiritually lost Hollywood screenwriter.