Watching Christian Bale dreamily skedaddle about all manner of Los Angeles outposts, and even a few in Las Vegas, brooding and searching for……something, I couldn’t help but think that if Jay Gatsby had been without the greenlit beacon at the end of the dock to consume his fervent longing, that he would have wound up much like Bale does in Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups”, brooding, walking, endlessly walking, and searching for……something. Indeed, in one of those Malick voiceovers that sound like rugged masculine solipsism filtered through a Condé Nast Traveler confessional, Bale likens his quest to a knight who went west, searching for riches, only to be a served a drink that erased his memory. And now “(he) can’t remember the man (he) wanted to be.”
This would liken “Knight of Cups” to something like a modern adventure story, except that Malick is never interested in conventions but busting them. He has been speaking in a different cinematic language since his beginning, and that language, more common in the 1970's when he first appeared, has become more and more obscure as time has gone on, and more difficult to penetrate, like Sanskrit, given the increasingly consecrative nature of Malick's work. In another movie, the early story earthquake that rattles Bale’s little if trendy-looking apartment would have been the ground-shaking Call to Adventure; here it’s just a rumbling from within, or something, a geological manifestation of the desperate cries of agony a man’s soul makes when it forgets its purpose on this earth. It doesn't spur him to action so much as plunge him into the beautiful abyss of cosmic existentialism.
Malick conveys all this with his patented National Geographic-ism, reveling in enormous swaths of skies, which characters stare up into longingly and cavort beneath dramatically, and beatific stretches of ocean, which characters frolic in like a momentary baptism that will not last. Occasionally, nearly unbelievably, he even exults in the seemingly un-exultable – namely, Vegas, Sin City itself, where his camera, entrusted to the impeccable Emmaneul Lubezki, drinks in the inside and outside of Caesar’s Palace, making its phony baloney Eiffel Tower gleam in the nighttime desert sky and rendering the inside of the hotel as a convincing Michaelangelo knockoff. Why, exactly, the film briefly diverts to Sin City I cannot recall, and I’m not entirely certain I even knew in the moment, but then that’s because Malick isn’t following narrative like a treasure map; he goes searching for treasure the way Stephen Meek went searching for the Oregon Valley – “we’re just finding our way.”
That’s how the whole film feels, and the camera too, for even if these innumerably sumptuous shots ae carefully staged, they always feel concocted of the moment, conveyed in the way that Lubezki’s camera remains semi-permanently affixed to the backs of characters, tracking with them, as if following their movements rather than the director’s. And yet, even as the characters saunter – or yes, on occasion, twirl – forward, he seems primarily concerned with the past, which is where most of “Knight of Cups” seems to be taking a place; they always feel like the past, like a rolodex of memories, brooding males searching through their minds for where they went right and where they went wrong. Many of these memories involve women, a virtual revolving door as the narrative, as it were, flints from Cate Blanchett to Natalie Portman to Frieda Pinto to Teresa Palmer to Isabel Lucas to Imogen Poots, “a rebellious young woman”, which is how Wikipedia describes her, which I reference here because that's truly the extent of their depth, existing primarily for the camera to ogle them, as Bale’s character does too.
But then, Bale is no doubt presented just as shallowly as the women. I’ve been calling him Bale because, when asked, he says his name is “Rick”, which sounds incredibly wrong tumbling out of his mouth, partially because a character in a movie like this should be named Claude, or Jean-Paul, not “Rick”, but also because the name is meaningless – he’s an avatar, as all Malick males seem to be anymore. With the camera, as stated, so frequently at his back, there are times when you could transpose Affleck from “To the Wonder” into “Knight of Cups” and no one would notice. Apparently “Rick” is a screenwriter, which I only learned after, because this is entirely beside the point. Males in Malick movies don’t have time to punch in and punch out, and so we just occasionally see him at work, where it looks more like commercial shoots and magazine cover shoots then anything have to do with movies. A brief foray into a backyard party hints at the soulless vacuousness of Los Angeles, but that vacuousness seems to be everywhere “Rick” looks, and so he returns again and again to his memories.
That runs counter to the idea the movie pitches at its thesis, in one of those quintessential Malick scenes where he simply shoehorns in a person to say what he wants to say; you can practically hear Malick off camera with his book of philosophy telling the guy what to say. The guy speaks about Monks and living for the moment. But that's what his movies anymore seem to be about, trying to capture that moment with their lustrous aesthetic, jettisoning any pretense toward character or story to find it. Who did that? What happened? When did it take place? Where did it take place? Why did that happen? “Eh, whatever,” says Malick, “and immerse yourself instead.” Whether or not you choose to follow his desire is entirely up to you.