When I began writing this article, I had watched the entirety of Terence Malick’s latest film Knight of Cups (2015) no fewer than six times before it even opened in theaters. Since then I’ve watched it at least eight more times. The fact that I can’t count how many times I actually watched the movie and that I can’t stop watching it even though I’d be hard pressed to tell you what the movie is actually about is a testament to the film’s revolutionary ability to seduce while defying all linearity and narrative. Malick’s film is beyond definition, yet it also is an irresistible aural cinematic confection.
Loosely, Malick has taken his unique dreamlike filmmaking into the heart of the beast – the movie industry. Taking on the artifice of Hollywood, the greater Los Angeles landscape, and an industry insider’s search for meaning in a meaningless world, Malick has used the city of glitter and gold (when you don’t look at the dirt and poverty) and turned the behind-the-scenes life of film industry success into a beautiful, hallucinogenic and richly textured meditation on the artifice, magic and emptiness of fame, Hollywood, wealth, success, materialism, and life under commercialized capitalism, of which Hollywood is one of the greatest proponents.
The movie can be read largely as a tale of how empty the life of celebrity and Hollywood artifice is, but to even give the movie that much meaning would conflict with Malick’s brilliant ability to deliver meaningless meaning. Never has empty felt so full as it does in Knight of Cups. Packaged as a quest for purpose by a lost and aimless man (familiar territory for Malick and this time featuring Christian Bale as screenwriter Rick), the movie is titled after a Tarot card and structured (if you can call anything about this film structured) into chapters loosely based on other Tarot cards (e.g. The Hanged Man and The Hermit). The film begins with the voiceover of a man telling the story of John Bunyan’s 1968 Pilgrim’s Progress, a story which is “Delivered under the Similitude of a Dream.” The narrator briefly tells the tale of a knight sent to the west looking for a pearl. We learn quickly that the knight is Rick; the pearl is an intangible dream; and Rick moves through life largely in a state of lost somnambulism. Both the tarot cards and the reference to Pilgrim’s Progress open the gateway for the mystical and magical to enter the film. These are elements that Hollywood movies frequently promise to deliver. What Malick shows us in his Industry laden portrait is that the only way magic can be delivered is to break the spell of linear narrative expectations.
Malick transposes the mythical West to Los Angeles and “the pearl” to any number of things. Certainly on one level the pearl is Rick’s quest for love. The problem is that as Rick seeks a beautiful woman to transform his empty world, and in doing so he confuses love and sex, a confusion often perpetuated in mainstream films. Subsequently a lot of beautiful women and implied sexual encounters account for multiple vignettes in this movie which comprises a series of visions rather than the story of a man. The pearl could also be the material and financial success of Rick’s filmmaking career, but that is also an illusion. Just like sex isn’t necessarily love, money isn’t necessarily happiness. But it doesn’t mean that they both – sexy women and the shiny material world – don’t look damn good in this movie which self-reflects on movies as artifice.
The only cards Malick really deals in this film are two, and we as members of the audience can choose one. 1) We can suspend disbelief and accept the film as a sensual experiential cinematic dream and allow ourselves to succumb to its visual and aural magic regardless of its empty content. Or, 2) we can toss the whole thing away as an oneristic exercise in cinematic pretension. It certainly has that quality. Quite honestly, I opt for Card #1 even if in the end, my hand comes up empty. It is a beautiful empty. It is a tasty and tempting empty. It is a color saturated, undulating, and seductive empty. Boldly using the emptiness of the Hollywood to deliver beauty is part of the film’s magic and brilliance.
The movie is entirely packed with Industry insiderness. I could write a whole paper on the Whos and Whats of the movie. Tomes of tabloids could be written about the cameos by A list actors, B list TV stars, literal screen writers and film agents who make appearances, and the behind the scenes pranks that resulted in much of the film’s content. The movie in many ways is like a tabloid magazine, all smoke and mirrors, stuffed with stars and the stuff that dreams and nightmares are made of, but to take it all apart and dissect every scene and every appearance of every celebrity would be to kill the movie’s magic. This element makes for sensational filmmaking. Malick takes the very sensational meat of the Hollywood industry and uses it as raw material to both critique the industry and create avant-garde cinema.
The movie is shamelessly honest while it also defies being categorized. While the film “stars” Christian Bale, the real stars are Emmanuel Lubezki’s deliriously beautiful cinematography and Malick’s narrative-resistant choice of (un)storytelling. The movie actually has very little script or screenplay. Many of the scenes are improvised or created with simple random prompts. Many of the actors had no idea what they were supposed to be doing or saying. This adds to the hallucinatory effect while also building on the aimless recklessness of the culture it presents and the main character who is a stand-in for the shallow yet seductive temptation of Hollywood.
Rick wanders through a series of landscapes: the artifice of architecture (LA and Las Vegas); the swell and sprawl of the ocean; the minimalist surreal desert; the grimy underbelly of the invisible LA, and most persistently the female body. He is lost in all of these, yet as seen through Malick’s lens they are landscapes one wouldn’t mind being lost inside. The “real” world feels so harsh after traveling with Rick. Lubeski smooths all the edges, and his roaming camera makes everything seem as universally sublime as the ocean. Even a garish Hollywood party seems somehow tantalizingly ephemeral. The artificiality of the wealthy Hollywood insiders and the homes and clubs they occupy seem fragile in their artifice, so we want to watch every luminous second and not miss out on this chance to indulge ourselves by watching celebrity culture indulge itself.
Rick desperately looks for a woman to change his life, and as a result he changes women like he changes his Calvin Klein underwear. He is seducing and being seduced by beautiful women at every turn. He flounders in the middle of a visual orgy of female flesh. A pink wigged temptress literally attempts to whip him to life with a belt. A tight breasted stripper locks him in a cage to his delight. A married woman demands he suck her toes. An enlightened super model teaches him the eroticism of play. To name all these actresses would be to play the Hollywood tabloid game. Do your searches if you are so inclined. Malick certainly is teasing us into believing their A-list standing gives these visions credence. But the anonymous extras are equally tantalizing. The naked woman on the balcony, the frolicking twosome in underpants and perky breasts, and the exotic Asian girls with parasols fill the same role in Rick’s life. Their faces just aren’t on the cover of People magazine.
Rick’s sexual forays are interspersed with recollections of his marriage to his evocatively beautiful ex-wife Nancy who is, appropriately, a doctor who treats leprosy. It is important to note that the wife is played by superstar Cate Blanchett, and that this celebrity marriage failed, just like celebrity ultimately fails. Rick clearly is suffering from some kind of diseased fixation of flesh, but his disease seems to be limited to the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (and white or exoticized “Other”). On the other hand, Nancy is working in the trenches of literal diseased flesh. She spends her days treating the black and poor whose flesh is literally rotting on their bodies. She is tender and compassionate, and her patients look out of the screen with fragility and humanity, something Rick also has but which has been corrupted by the artificial trappings with which he has constructed his life. With Rick and Nancy, Malick is playing at opposites. He is showing the discrepancy of the unreality of the flesh of Hollywood with all its glitter, sequins and Armani suits compared to the “reality” of the black and poor. Through this contrast, Malick subtly and beautifully exposes the disease of class and race discrepancy that rarely surfaces in the Hollywood dream. Whether the outcome is intentional or not, it works, even if Nancy treats her patients with bare hands (which would never happen in real life) and spends her free time wearing thousand dollar outfits and gazing at the sea with her tormented soul of a husband.
We are conditioned to a large degree to gag at the excess and exploitation of women in film: the pole dancing and the toe sucking, the naked cell phone calling and the exotic parasol wielding, the belt whipping and butt thong wearing nymphets. But the women in this film are all so beautiful that they are irresistible. We can’t help but look and want more. Their beauty is even more sublime and ephemeral because they are encased in such a storyless story. They are unanchored by narrative. While their presence could seem exploitive and even downright abominable, somehow the fact that Malick has freed them from traditional Hollywood narratives and instead uses their beauty to entice and seduce makes them more into spirits or angels than woman trapped by standard codes of narrative cinema. Even when Rick takes the stripper to Las Vegas and spends a load of cash on her, the depiction is both grossly excessive yet temptingly alluring.
This allure largely comes from the hallucinatory cinematography. The movie feels like a drug, and it inspires the desire to want more even when we are conscious of the absurd material excess in which we are partaking. On the one hand, we may be compelled to question why so many beautiful women are running around in underwear, wagging their butts in strip clubs, pumping their breasts in discos, or parading their haute couture at Hollywood gatherings, but by seducing us with these images even as we are conscious of their problematic content, Malick is unveiling the conundrum of artifice. Sex is the most primal human instinct. It drives our very existence as a species. Yet, under the guise of commerce (Hollywood), it becomes just another alluring object of consumption, something that we chase like cars and manufactured dreams. We can’t get enough, ever. And that drives the production of and desire for more.
Tacked onto the story of Rick’s myriad of sexual flirtations with beautiful women, Hollywood parties, whirlwind trips to Las Vegas, frolicking wave jumping on the beach, fast drives down freeways in his vintage convertible, and existential walks through the desert in aforementioned Armani suit is a story of a lost boy who is now a man at odds with his childhood and in conflict with his father. But like the unconscious, the story and the narrative components which should reveal it come to us in barely discernible conversations and conflicts. Rick interacts with his brother Barry (Wes Bently) who has kept his feet firmly grounded in the gritty side of LA and in the emotionally turbulent terrain of his family. Barry takes Rick through tours of where the “real people” live, and in between he rants and rages over the suicide of their brother and the tyranny of their father (Brian Dennehy). Barry takes the world by the horns and rants in its face while Rick looks blindly at everything, going through life a somnambulist looking for solutions in naked women and parties rather than confronting the reality of what is really bothering him. Rick has used the artifice of Hollywood to create a fake world and repress his true feelings about his family and his domineering father. Or at least we are given threads to lead us to believe this is the story behind the story that’s not really told.
Rick seeks redemption through his tristes with women, through a Tarot card reading on Sunset Boulevard, through forays to the natural landscape of the ocean and desert, but he doesn’t come up with any answers and neither does the film. In fact, that is why the Knight of Cups is quietly revolutionary. Even the title offers promise of an answer through a Tarot card, but then gives us nothing in return. It uses elements of “real” Hollywood such as real life actors and real geographic sets to seduce the audience with its cinematic magic and expose the dissolving line between artifice and reality. Every single meaningful interaction in the film that would allude to some narrative substance – an argument with Rick’s father, the revelation that he got one of his girl’s pregnant, reference to his brother’s suicide – is subverted and muffled. The language is unintelligible. Try as we might, we can’t make heads or tails out of what people are actually saying in the most important narrative scenes. It’s like we are hearing the echoes of voices playing from some other station that lingers behind the film. And that is the place Malick is showing us. He is using a movie to show us the other side of movies.
The film never lets us forget it’s a film. Rick spends time walking the sprawling artifice of Hollywood studio sets where an absurdly ludicrous yet beautiful woman who could be Marie Antoinette’s twin randomly wanders up one of the streets. He spends much time in the gleaming glass and steel buildings of the movie industry. These are the 21st palaces where deals are made and broken, and where cash and dreams are written into contracts. These are actual locations within the movie industry, yet through Malick and Lubeski’s lens none of it feels real. It is all both incredibly real and sublimely unreal, and that is what makes the film so damn beautiful.
When Rick speeds down the Hollywood freeway and under the labyrinth of Los Angeles freeways, we know those are the real freeways, yet they aren’t. Lubeski’s cinematography makes them into something spectacularly magnificent – bigger than this world even while being of this world. Lubeski and Malick draw no distinction between the alluring appeal of billboards on Sunset Boulevard or waves lapping at the shore of the Santa Monica beach. All the material of this world – nature and architecture – are drugs for our eyes and our senses. The “authentic” people and sets provide material for a hallucinogenic deconstruction of artifice and authenticity. Everything has a veneer of mysticism and otherworldliness, reminding us that Hollywood is the quintessential dream maker, but it is also the money maker leaving a hole in the center of the beauty where the cash flows. To make a movie really about the industry is largely to make a movie about a hole, which is what Malick has done.
In a way, Knight of Cups is the ultimate existential movie questioning the whole concept of “authentic” existence and whether authenticity actually exists in the lived and material world. Can we see the authentic and quantify it, or is it something that can only be experienced by being exposed to its opposite? Do we feel authenticity through inauthenticity? In this film, Malick has created that tension. As human beings thrown into the material world, especially one of commerce, money and illusion created by the film industry, how do we even know who we are outside the multiple productions of self? The deconstruction of the artifice of self and how it is connected to media cannot be delivered effectively through traditional narrative film. Malick uses the artifice of Los Angeles and the filmmaking industry as a backdrop to question artificial constructions of identity and self. He uses an exceptionally polished hallucinogenic film to get to the core of that which we will never really understand – who we are and what we are.
The film is beautiful and undefinable, and perhaps that’s the only way we can be authentic in a grossly material world is to let ourselves give into our senses and leave our physical body behind. Malick uses the material world to allow us a portal to do that. Pink hair has never looked so beautifully pink. The skin of naked women has never looked so enticingly fresh and smooth. The lights of discos and absurd Romanesque palaces of Vegas are enticing invitations to cinematic hedonism. In many ways, the film harkens back to the hallucinatory experiential films of Kenneth Anger (The Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome - 1986), except that there is little pleasure for the film’s main protagonist Rick. All the pleasure lies in the audience. Knight of Cups is a mystical trick. Malick is like the old Carnie inviting us into his Hall of Mirrors where we get lost in multiple reflections of self, none of which are reliable even though they are reflecting a real being. Still, we can’t stop looking at the infinite reflections, the teasing glistening surfaces of the mirrors, just like I can’t stop looking at Knight of Cups even though I know its surface is ultimately beautiful yet empty.