Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman
Directed by: Terrence Malick (“Tree of Life,” “The Thin Red Line”)
Written by: Terrence Malick
In 2011, a peculiar and prominently placed lobby placard accompanied the theatrical run of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” at the Austin, Texas, arthouse where my wife and I saw the film. Customarily, of course, studios will blow up favorable reviews of prestige pictures, poster-sized reproductions of admiring New York Times or Variety think-pieces intended to drive traffic, foster appreciation, and brand the property as “critically acclaimed” and “substantial” and “Academy Award-worthy.” (All three of which, of course, the thrice-nominated Tree [Picture/Director/Cinematography] rather objectively is.)
This lobby card was different, though. No monolithic rave or erudite recommendation, it bore instead a disclaimer. A warning, really. Very nearly, indeed, a tight-jawed semi-apology. It communicated something remarkably similar to — and may in fact have been a close paraphrasing or regionalized adaptation of — a like-minded and somewhat internet-notorious caveat that was displayed at Stamford, Connecticut’s Avon theatre and read, in part: “We would like to take this opportunity to remind patrons that “The Tree of Life” is a uniquely visionary and deeply philosophical film from an auteur director. It does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling. We encourage patrons to read up on the film before choosing to see it … please go in with an open mind and know that the Avon has a NO-REFUND policy…”
In essence: “We realize that, technically, this is a summer movie featuring Brad Pitt and dinosaurs, but please don’t allow that to calibrate your attention span. Take a deep breath, and give it a shot. If you do, we think you might — albeit in spite of yourself — have a meaningful experience.” Or, Eat your peas because they’re good for you and because we can’t just have ice cream all the time, you feckless troglodytes.
The more-recent films of Terrence Malick are, in two insufficient words, lyrical and polarizing. A cursory Rotten Tomatoes jaunt confirms that “To The Wonder” was called both “the best American feature by far of 2013” and “a self-destructed misfire.” I saw “The Thin Red Line” in high school with friends who went in looking for two more hours of “Saving Private Ryan.” And post-screening eavesdroppings and conversations relative to the certainly lyrical-and-polarizing “Knight of Cups” have yielded (1) stunned, breathless utterances of profound gratitude, (2) shaking pledges of enthusiastic hatred from at least one respected friend and Malick fan, and (3) the overheard, apparently concerned puzzler, “Does Brian Dennehy have an issue with his back?”
The thing about “Knight of Cups” is that there isn’t just one thing about “Knight of Cups.” Or about “The Tree of Life,” or “The Thin Red Line.” “Knight” (literally) follows a reeling-and-gutted, hollow-eyed Bale (playing a screenwriter named Rick — though, I missed something, because I thought he was meant to be an actor until I checked the IMDB synopsis just now) through a numb, soft, swirling, glittering, emotionless-and-emotionally-harrowing minefield of beauty, decadence, lovers, and loss. Sounds are muted, dialogue Dopplers in and out, voiceover and chamber music and quotations from sources as varied as The Pilgrim’s Progress and the Bible and was-that-really-“Twin Peaks” abound, and the whole sordid, dreamy affair is awash in natural light and revealed by Chivo Lubezki’s always-swimming, too-close-for-anything-but-comfort camera. There’s a lot going on, always. You lean forward and push your ears up to catch everything, and you don’t catch everything. And so, you remain patient and open and have faith that everything will come together and make sense.
Increasingly, it may be said, certain of Malick’s films are in some ways less “films” and more experiential, stylized realities. And somehow, in their stylization, in their stream-of-fractured-consciousness, in their gauzy haze and sudden, uncanny specificity, they approximate reality and the sense of life more closely and accurately than the work of almost any other filmmaker who comes to mind. There is form in this formlessness, method in this Malickness. Malick’s work spends purposeful time breaking us of our expectations, of the ingrained and deep-dug structures and movie-languages we carry in unconscious second nature as veteran consumers of film; we find ourselves adrift, and it’s then that we truly begin paying attention — and finding inalienable personal meaning — moment by moment.
Malick isn’t the only cinematic artist who succeeds here. The universal value of film, and of art itself, lies (arguably, I suppose) in communicating love, in letting us know we are not alone. That’s the draw. I cannot, though, name another cinematic artist who does it quite like Malick, who achieves his particular, impressionistic poetry of intimacy. Is it repetitive and inscrutable, at times, or demanding of patience? Sure. Like life is. Is it susceptible to reductive parody? Yes, as are many vulnerable or distinctive works. Does he get more of a pass because he’s Malick, and because of his body of work? Yes, and that’s exactly as it should be.
There are wonderful, wonderful things about “Knight of Cups.” It’s a concert for the soul and the senses. Performances are raw, real, closer than you’ll ever get. Cate Blanchett shows, once again, that she can crack your heart wide open with a look. Michael Freaking Wincott is in it. (YES.) So is half of Hollywood. You still may not like it. (It’s kinda like “8½” meets Koyaanisqatsi, if that helps.) But there are very few films that will get you and everyone who saw it with you talking and feeling in the same way. And that, perhaps, is the point: “Knight of Cups” is the latest reminder and resounding reinforcement of how very, very desperately we need Terrence Malick — and the filmmakers he continues to inspire.