By Adam Nayman
“How do I find you? Who do you turn to?”
A very Malickian line of inquiry, but these words do not emanate from any of the many voiceovers in Terry, the Creator’s latest. Rather, they’re taken from Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, another sprawlingly solipsistic, wildly undisciplined testament of faith whose release has invited scorn from the peanut gallery and tested the faith of true believers. The comparison between the 72-year-old former Rhodes scholar and the 38-year-old College Dropout is not as absurd as it may seem: for one thing, both are avowed fans of Zoolander (2001), even if only one of them Tweeted several times about it this month. But it’s also true that a critic could reconstruct Knight of Cups’ impressionistic journey through gilded, beachfront California—and its hero’s quest for paternal and divine approval—by placing Pablo’s new track listing on shuffle: “Ultralight Beams,” “Father Stretch My Hands,” “Waves,” “Famous,” “FML,” “No More Parties in LA.”
It’s probably snotty to suggest that these titles could be substituted for the Tarot-derived chapter headings that split Knight of Cups into six parts. But on a single, devotedly attentive viewing, I couldn’t grok the logic of these headings beyond the lamely prosaic—i.e., that in “Judgment,” protagonist Rick (Christian Bale) is judged rather harshly (via voiceover, natch) by his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), or “Death”’s late revelation of a tragic passing. Whether the conceit holds or not, it’s worth pointing out that Malick usually does better when he’s working from sturdier dramatic armatures. That old Pauline Kael jibe about Days of Heaven (1978)—“It’s like a Christmas tree; you can hang all your metaphors on it”—now reads to me as a wrong-headed but not un-perceptive take on Malick’s strengths and weaknesses as a filmmaker, and also the reception, pro and con, of his work by critics.
For instance: The New World (2005)—for my money, Malick’s masterpiece—turns its ecstatic curlicues overtop of a national creation myth so familiar it’s been plundered by Disney. The archetypal romantic triangle of Days of Heaven, which gets echoed in the New World, is similarly rooted in an earthbound dramatic structure. The Emersonian Over-Soul murmurings of The Thin Red Line (1998), meanwhile, generate a potent tension against the source novel’s essentially straight, taking-the-anthill war narrative. The result of this experimentation was a genre piece distended, excitingly, to the breaking point, and also a turning point in Malick’s career, as with the double shot of The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012), the director started conjuring his movies entirely out of thin air.
The results, for this critic at least, were mixed. Whereas the veiled, Carson McCullers-ish autobiography of The Tree of Life felt fully inhabited, To the Wonder was so untethered that it up and floated away into the ether. Granted, films that provide the kind of consistent visual lift-off achieved by Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are few and far between, and as a compendium of glances and lingering looks, To the Wonder is nearly peerless: a stray take of Ben Affleck embracing Rachel McAdams in a grassy field crowded by buffalo has stayed with me while the money shots of other, richer movies have faded. If anything, it’s the apparent effortlessness of all that beauty that makes me a bit dubious. What is at stake as these two visionary artists (plus production designer Jack Fisk, to give us a Holy Trinity) remake the world in their image, one implacable tracking shot at a time?
By now, the configuration of Malick-Lubezki’s late aesthetic is predictable to the point of self-parody: typically, the camera hovers a few paces behind a human subject’s head as he (or sometimes she) perambulates towards some far distant vanishing point, often parallel to some sort of barely perceived movement on the periphery. The world is always wide open in Malick’s films, and when his characters do find themselves indoors, there’s usually a window somewhere in view to extend their (and our) sightlines past the walls. My memory banks have forever stored a moment in The New World where Christian Bale sits forlornly on his porch while, in perfect deep focus, we see Q’orianka Kilcher exiting through the back door—a perfect example of the filmmakers’ tendency to build escape hatches into their compositions.
And yet for all the agility of the camerawork, watching Knight of Cups is not quite a liberating experience. Rick’s Pilgrim’s Progress through a 21st-century Hollywood Babylon presided over by empty suits and half-naked sylphs is enervating in a way that exceeds the entertainment-factory critique at the film’s core; where admirers have invoked La Dolce Vita (1960) and La Notte (1961), I kept having ugly flashes of the discount Fellini-Antonioni knock-off The Great Beauty (2013)—a.k.a. The Life of Paolo—a film whose ambivalence about upper-class decadence scans as the artificial posturing of a piddling art-house pseud. Terrence Malick is an exponentially greater artist than cynical Paolo Sorrentino, of course, and refreshingly earnest to boot. But his intimations of deep-down suffering and heartsick yearning, affixed to Bale’s painstakingly affectless performance, simply aren’t convincing, at least not to these (sympathetic) eyes, and ears.
It’s not just that the dialectic between the earthly and the ephemeral (twin sources of rapture and mortification) had already been expressed in The Tree of Life. Hypothetically, there’s plenty to be gained from Malick shifting his sights from the past to the present and his location from the heartland to the coast. The problem is that for all of Knight of Cups’ attempts to defamiliarize its rural and urban California landscapes, the central visual idea of Los Angeles as epicentre of facades is only virtuoso by rote. More surprising (and potentially troubling) is the use of homeless and impoverished Los Angelenos as sculptural elements within the frame, a quasi-documentary impulse that complicates (but does not contradict) the nouveau-rich decadence glimpsed elsewhere.
Most of the time, Malick stays with the beautiful people, and if it’s possible to note his fervent affection for a certain kind of female beauty without lapsing into judgmental sarcasm, that’s where I’d like to leave things (though I’ll add that I’m more convinced than ever that Quentin Tarantino has a challenger in the auteur foot-fetish sweepstakes). It’s interesting to note that the two best-realized female performances/characterizations in Malick’s oeuvre are Linda Manz in Days of Heaven and Kilcher in The New World, two unknowns whose anonymity gives their wild-child acts a disarming air of spontaneity. The famous faces of Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman in Cups, however, are considerably more distracting, and not only because it’s irresistible to speculate about how much of their performances got chiselled away in the post-production process. For whatever reason, these two very fine performers seem paralyzed by the gestural, pantomime style encouraged by their director (a bit like Miranda Otto in The Thin Red Line), whereas Australian model Teresa Palmer—as the unnamed stripper Rick hooks up with in the High Pristess section—appears genuinely beguiled, and fairly radiates with her character’s New-Age convictions.
At one point, Palmer’s High Priestess instructs Rick—and the rest of us seekers out there in the audience—to try to experience everything once, which could just as easily be a high-school yearbook quote as the wisdom of the ages. Not that one necessarily has to choose. It’s entirely possible to acknowledge the particular brand of mastery here without totally reconciling those internal, core elements that feel excessive or indulgent (and I would say the same thing about The Life of Pablo, by the way). Writing in Reverse Shot, Nick Pinkerton says of Malick: “those who respond to his movies couldn’t be kept away from a new one, and you can’t tell anything to those who don’t.” This is a reasonable assessment, and skeptics in search of convincing might want to start with Pinkerton’s beautifully argued encomium—I doubt there’ll be a more persuasive case made in print for a polarizing movie at any point this year. But if it’s possible to see the glorious, luminous negative space in Knight of Cups as containing either Heaven or Purgatory, surely there’s room somewhere in there for those of us content and determined to occupy some kind of middle ground.