Where “To the Wonder” conflated Malick’s cinematic style with the actual stories he tells, unifying form and function in a collage where Malick’s signature style told the precise point of the film, “Knight of Cups” continues that collapse of technique with storytelling, a dazed, flickering series of memories chasing spiritual sustenance amongst endless, useless beauty, an inherently unfinished, open-ended life in cinema, where the meaning precisely is meaning being out of reach. If “The Tree of Life” was about memory, “Knight of Cups” is memory, the actual act of remembrance, instead of a story where memory played a key thematic part. Malick’s 2010s method of storytelling isn’t to tell a story through his signature bag of tricks, it’s to make those tricks into the actual story. “To the Wonder” isn’t a narrative where a character learns to find beauty in the world, it is finding beauty in the world, “Knight of Cups” isn’t a narrative of a character failing to find meaning in other people and the narratives human life offers up, it is that experience of meaningless in life and its stories. Christopher Nolan once said of Malick “When you think of a visual style, or the visual language of a film, there tends to be a natural separation between the visual style and the narrative elements – but with the greats, whether it be Stanley Kubrick or Terrence Malick or Hitchcock, what you are seeing is an inseparable, vital relationship between the image and the story it is telling” and that certainly is the case here.
Like in “The Tree of Life”, the protagonist here (Christian Bale embodying that listless sense of spiritual ennui, confusion and emptiness interspersed with vacuous enjoyment and thrillseeking, no doubt very realistically portrayed since that would have basically been his experience working with Malick completely without a script or any idea what the film was particularly about) filters through his memories, but where that was a vehicle in “The Tree of Life” for that film’s story, here that essentially is the story, those inseparable connections between life experiences, where any connections are so much less tangible and fleeting than outright narrative metaphor, and are subtler, more suggestions than parallels. The closest the film gets to clear symbols are water and helicopters, the unknown and the out of reach.
The film flirts with time-honoured narratives befitting of Hollywood, where the film takes place – narratives of family, religion, consumerism, betrayal, middle-aged angst, romantic relationships, sexual dalliances, and so on – but both Bale’s character and the audience see them trail off, as these narratives in their repetition make increasingly less sense to impose upon the vastness of the world and the emptiness of their experience. The constant, often slow and soothing motion of the film’s many steadicam shots, the meditative voiceover, it all feels as memory, even if it’s not literalised as flashback.
When the film lingers on a sequence of dogs diving into pools and vainly trying to latch onto tennis balls with their mouths, there’s no overt attempt to connect it to Bale’s character’s story, but that feeling of uselessness, of something (”the pearl”) forever being out of grasp, it all melds into the stream-of-consciousness remembering style of the film neatly. The film constantly cuts off and pulls back from scenes whenever they buzz too close to sequential narrative or meaning, including a family argument literally being muted at one point.
The film (surely semi-autobiographical, given Malick’s stance as a similar well-to-do screenwriter in his youth, and his unfortunate family tragedy he shares with Bale’s character) embodies that numbing sense of trauma where one’s connection to the past and present is severed. It shares this with “The Tree of Life”, Sean Penn’s character, but where the cityscapes in that film seemed pitifully small and unambitious compared to the godly beauty and truth that film explored, here they’re explored with delight, Malick’s location of beauty in the present honed from “To the Wonder”, as he shoots a concrete jungle with as much fascination and eye for beauty as he did an actual jungle in “The Thin Red Line”. The film doesn’t go for anything as trite as the modern world or the modern city being the source of its protagonist’s spiritual malaise, in fact it’s just another piece of useless magnificence he fails to truly sustain himself with.
A priest offers the wisdom that “to suffer binds you to something higher than yourself”, but when that suffering is squarely internal yet always present, how can one reach for anything other than distraction? “You don’t want love,” says one of the protagonist’s many romantic partners throughout the film, “you want a love experience,” and that constant search for feelings, for distraction, is played less like a source of nihilism than a temporary, ultimately useless salve. Even literal earthquakes or violent robberies fail to shake the film’s Knight of Cups from his spiritual slumber. It has to come from within. Each act of the film, following a different romantic relationship, ends with the same musical motif from Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus – the search continues. It’s telling that the film’s final sequences show the protagonist performing repetitive, more mundane actions – the self cannot be escaped, living in the moment may paradoxically be the only way to really mantle inner peace. But any closure there in the actual film is wispy enough to be doubted. It’s as much a continual yearning for meaning, awash in memories and attempts to impose familiar narratives upon the chaos of the world, as life is. Four Tarot cards, and a helicopter.