***THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!***
ESTIMATED READING TIME : 14 MINUTES
MY RATING: 4.75 out of 5 STARS - SEE IT IN THE THEATRE
*** REVIEW SUMMARY***: If you like Terrence Malick films you will really like Knight of Cups. As the third film in Malick's undeclared autobiographical trilogy, with The Tree of Life and To the Wonder being the first two films, it is much more accessible than To the Wonder and ever so slightly less accessible than The Tree of Life. Be forewarned, if your tastes run more conventional and mainstream, Knight of Cups, and any other Malick film for that matter, will not be for you.
Once the soul was perfect and had wings, and could soar into Heaven…find your way from darkness to light. Remember.
In 2011, I went to see the film The Tree of Life written and directed by Terence Malick. I was deeply moved by the film and genuinely loved it. The greatest attempt at describing my feelings for the film would be to say it was the film that I had unknowingly been waiting for my entire life. Considering I am very reticent to engage in hyperbole in regards to any film (or any-thing for that matter), this was high praise indeed.
When I was asked by people if I liked the film, I shared with them that same glowing endorsement, and I was received in one of two ways, either people warmly embraced me as a fellow traveler and soul-mate on this incredible journey of life, or I was assaulted like a stranger in a strange land with a level of vitriol unprecedented in the long, troubled history of mankind.
It was clear, the battle lines had been drawn, pro-Malick people on one side, anti-Malick people on the other. The people who disliked The Tree of Life, REALLY, REALLY HATED it, and the people who liked the film, REALLY, REALLY LOVED it. The anti-Tree of Lifers said the film was incoherent, rambling and pretentious, while the pro-Tree of Lifers said it was intimate, personal and visionary. I wasn't entirely shocked by the negative reaction to the film by some people, during the showing I went to, three different audience members, at different times, got up and turned to face the rest of the crowd and held their arms out wide as if to say "what in the hell is this?" and then made a spectacle of themselves as they stormed out of the theatre in a loud huff, making sure everyone knew how much they hated the film. And thus, with these 'walk-outs', the first shots in "The Great Malick Civil War", which had been simmering for decades, were fired, and the horrible, bloody war rages on to this day with Malick's latest release Knight of Cups.
At the conclusion of the showing of Knight of Cups (which is written and directed by Terrence Malick, stars Christian Bale, and is shot by Emmanuel Lubezki) which I attended, two blue-haried old biddies sitting near the front of the sparsely filled theatre made a show of dismissively laughing loudly the moment credits rolled. This was followed by an older man, sitting by himself on the other side of my row, who cupped his hands by his mouth and booed loudly, vomiting his negative opinion over every one in the theatre. My instinct was to walk over and pour my root beer over this geezer's head, and tell him that since he felt the need to share his feelings with me, I thought I'd share my feelings with him. Thankfully my better nature prevailed, or I might be writing this post on the lam, wanted for the murder, justifiable in my eyes, of three old people in a Los Angeles theatre. When it comes to this Great Malick Civil War, I am trying, God knows, to follow John Lennon's example of "giving peace a chance."
The Malick Civil War is one of those wars to which we've become so accustomed, the type of war which no one can win and which will last until the end of history. I can't end the war myself but I can try to help you understand it, it's origins and how to survive it, so that you can tell your children, grandchildren and great grandchildren about how we got into this senseless slaughter we know as "The Great Malick Civil War", with the hope that those future generations can bring an end to the carnage.
FOUR SCORE AND SEVEN MOVIES AGO
The Abraham Lincoln at the center of this civil war is enigmatic writer/director Terence Malick. Malick has directed and written seven feature films, which are, in chronological order, Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), The Tree of Life (2011), To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2016). In keeping with his somewhat eccentric image, after his second feature, Days of Heaven, Malick disappeared from movie-making and public life, only to resurface twenty years later with the film The Thin Red Line. Malick is a unique man, unlike most other directors, as evidenced by his rarely doing any press or interviews for his films, and not even allowing himself be photographed on the set of his movies.
Malick's last three films, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, which seem to form a sort of personal and autobiographical trilogy, are films that are particularly challenging for some viewers, and down right off-putting to others. The biggest complaint about The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups is the main complaint about many of Malick's films, namely people don't understand what the hell is happening in the story. In a Malick film, the narrative can be, at times, non-linear. Malick's films are like dreams...impressionistic, abstract and filled with symbolism.
"GIVE ME SIX HOURS TO CHOP DOWN A TREE AND I WILL SPEND THE FIRST FOUR SHARPENING THE AXE." - ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Unlike most other other filmmakers, Malick likes to shift perspective in his films. We often hear, in voice over, the inner thoughts and feelings of multiple characters throughout his films. It is a technique very similar in story telling structure to a novel or even a long form poem, and when done well, as it is in Malick's case, it helps create an intimacy and personal connection between the audience and the character.
Malick heightens this effect by often having these voice-overs be done in a barely audible whisper. Examples of this multiple-protagonist-narration technique can be found in The Thin Red Line, where the narration comes from as many as five characters, Private Witt, Sgt. Welsh, Captain Staros, Private Bell and Lt. Col. Tall, and the perspective jumps across multiple story lines, so we see the overarching narrative through these different protagonists perspectives, giving the film a depth and complexity it would otherwise be lacking with a more conventional storytelling technique.
The New World is also narrated by three different characters as well, Captain Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe, giving the story a much more well-rounded and deeper personal dimension than a standard filmmaking approach. This love triangle, which is a theme often explored in Malick's films, is brought to greater life and depth by understanding the inner thoughts and workings of all the participants.
In The Tree of Life, the narration jumps between the mother (Jessica Chastain), the father (Brad Pitt) and the son as both a child (Hunter McCracken) and as an adult (Sean Penn), which gives the film a vibrant and exquisitely powerful intimacy. The use of multiple protagonist's narrations and perspectives is extremely unconventional in filmmaking, hell, just using a single narrator is a technique that many filmmakers vehemently disagree with, never mind using multiple narrators. In the hands of a less visionary director, the voice-over is a bandage used to cover their weak storytelling skill, but with a handful of directors, Malick and Scorsese in particular, voice-over narration is a weapon they wield expertly that elevates their storytelling to glorious heights.
Malick hasn't always use multiple narrators in his films, for instance in Badlands and Days of Heaven, his first two films, he uses a singular narrator, both young woman/girls, to guide the viewer through the picture. In Badlands, the protagonist is Sissy Spacek's teenage character, Holly, who shows us the story, and her innocence makes the brutality and barbarity of Kit (Martin Sheen) and the other male characters more palatable for the viewer. In Days of Heaven, a young girl, Linda (Linda Manz), narrates the story of Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams) as they make their way from Chicago to the plains of the Midwest. This technique gives the viewer a distance from the main protagonists, but maintains Malick's signature intimacy (and the theme of femininity), in this case, through the eyes of an innocent child. As Malick has matured and found his voice and style as an artist and filmmaker, he has become more deft at the use of the multiple protagonists and narrations, and has used it to great effect in his last five films to give the viewer more complex perspectives.
"I WALK SLOWLY, BUT I NEVER WALK BACKWARDS" - ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Malick also has a distinct and unique visual style where he only uses natural lighting. In addition to the natural lighting, Malick also highlights this naturalism with his camera movement by letting the camera dance and float about. He sometimes let's the camera stop to focus on the wonders of the natural world and setting, holding on an animal, an insect or a tree. Malick never rushes his camera, and his deliberate pace and natural lighting, free moving camera and occasional focus on nature, all create a signature style that has a tangible and palpable feel to it. You don't just see through Malick's camera, you feel the world it inhabits. Whether it is the minuscule bumps on a soldiers helmet, the abrasive blades of grass in a field, the texture of a character's sweater, through Malick's use of natural light, these objects have greater definition and every contour of them is accentuated, giving the viewer the sense memory of similar items they have felt in their own lives. It is a remarkable accomplishment for Malick to be able to bring his visuals to such a heightened and naturalistic state that viewers not only bask in their beauty but recall their own tactile memories.
There is a sequence in Knight of Cups where Christian Bale wears a bulky, wool sweater, and Cate Blanchett simply reaches out towards him and feels it. Malick's camera, with the guidance of one of the great cinematographers working today, Emmaneul Lubezki, picks up every single nook and cranny of this sweater, it is palpable on screen, and when Blanchett reaches out for it you feel that sweater right along with her, and also feel her character's longing to connect with Bale.
"I DESTROY MY ENEMIES WHEN I MAKE THEM MY FRIENDS." - ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Which brings us to acting in a Malick film. Of the many people with whom I have disagreed about Terrence Malick films, many of them are actors. A lot of actors I spoke with about The Tree of Life, absolutely hated the movie. I was shocked by this revelation as I would have assumed actors were a bit more cinematically sophisticated than the average Joe, but boy was I wrong. Actors may actually be even more culturally conditioned in their movie watching because they are so used to reading scripts and understanding the basics of how to tell a story. This does not suit the viewer of a Malick film, in fact it is poison.
Malick is very improvisational with his actors and his camera, which scares the living hell out of most actors. A lot of actors want to know what to do and when to do it. Being left out in front of a camera with no context and nothing to do but simply "be", is a form of torture for most actors. In addition, because Malick is able to bring us so intensely close to his subjects and into their internal world, the opportunities for a big external clash with the outer world are reduced. The brushes with the external are quickly integrated into the internal, so we don't have the explosive confrontation that actors love to embrace. Since Malick uses voice over so often, actors aren't allowed to talk their way through something, which a lot of actors desperately love to do. The actors are forced to be present in the moment and just "be alive" before the cameras. It is very improvisational and in some ways like watching an unrehearsed dance...kind of like…I don't know...life. Some actors hate it when they don't know what to do...am I mad here? Am I sad? Do I laugh? Do I cry? No, you just are here...alive and human. Once an actor can get comfortable with the "not knowing" of Malick's approach, then Malick can fill in the proper meaning and purpose he intends through voice over and editing.
Malick's style of filmmaking lays an actor bare. You can't bullshit, or rely on your good looks to charm your way through a Malick film. You need talent, skill and frankly, intelligence and gravitas to be able to thrive in a Malick film. There have been some extraordinary performances in Malick films, for instance, Cate Blanchett in Knight of Cups does simple yet stellar work, bringing her great craft to bear in a role that would have been invisible in the hands of a lesser actress.
Blanchett being great is no surprise as she is one of the world's finest actresses, but Malick has been able to get great performances from some less expected places. In To the Wonder, Olga Kurylenko, who had previously been in little more than action films, gives a wondrous performance. Kurylenko, whose background is in dance and for whom English is a third language, is comfortable expressing herself through her body and movement, which means she is never stuck trying to figure out a scene, but rather is capable if just inhabiting it, a great quality for an actor to possess in a Malick film. Another surprising performance in a Malick film is Colin Farrell in The New World. Farrell's naturalism and tangible fear in front of Malick's camera made for a mesmerizing and unexpected performance from the often-time uneven actor.
Other actors who have thrived in Malick films are Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands, with Sheen giving a Brando-esque level performance filled with charisma and power. Nick Nolte, Jim Cavezial, Sean Penn, Ben Chaplin and Elias Koteas all do very solid work in The Thin Red Line. Koteas and Nolte in particular do spectacularly specific work in very difficult roles. The aforementioned Colin Farrell, Christian Bale and Q'oriana Kilcher in The New World. Kilcher is simply amazing as Pocahontes, completely natural, charismatic and at ease as Malick's Native American muse. Sean Penn, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain all give detailed and vibrant performances in The Tree of Life, with Chastain really being the break out star. Chastain, like Blanchett, is one of the great actresses working today, and her work in The Tree of Life was so masterful and elegantly human that she was immediately catapulted into the upper echelon of highly respected actors.
Conversely, there have been actors who have been exposed in Malick films as being little more than a pretty face with an empty head. Richard Gere simply lacked the gravitas to carry Days of Heaven and the film suffered greatly for it. Gere was just unable too fill the screen and maintain the viewers interest mostly due to a lack of focus and grounding. Along the same lines, Ben Affleck is really dreadful in To the Wonder. Affleck was revealed to be a dullard with absolutely nothing going on behind the eyes. He is obviously a handsome guy, but he is unable to express much with his face, leaving him being awkward and uncomfortable in front of Malick's camera without anything to do but just be. Simliarly, Rachel McAdams also struggled mightily in To the Wonder, as both actors seemed lost and wandering throughout their screen time, especially in comparison to Olga Kurylenko's transcendent performance.
The ability to be able to communicate non-verbally is paramount for an actor in a Malick film, which is why highly skilled actors, like Chastain, Blanchett, Penn and Sheen were able to shine, as were relative novices like Kilcher and Kurylenko who are grounded and comfortable in their bodies.
In Knight of Cups, Christian Bale shows his great craft and skill by being able to carry the narrative of the film without saying a whole lot. He is an often underrated actor, but his work in Knight of Cups is testament to his mastery of craft and innate talent.
"ALL THAT I AM, OR HOPE TO BE, I OWE TO MY ANGEL MOTHER." - ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Malick often returns to the same themes in his films. One theme that runs through all of his films, and is the central focus of Knight of Cups, is the Anima, the feminine. Malick has always had a certain, very specific type of feminine archetype on display in his films. His central female characters have almost always worn flowing, light dresses, mostly in the style of the 1940's or so, and have also frequently gone barefoot, both symbolic of femininity and maternity. This particular female archetype, probably inspired by the director's own mother, is not a damsel in distress, or a vixen or a school marm, it is a femininity of strength and intrigue, like the goddess or the Virgin Mary. At once mystical, mysterious, powerful and enchanting. This archetype is vividly on display in The Tree of Life in the mother character portrayed by Jessica Chastain. The archetype also shows up in fleeting and tantalizing glimpses in The Thin Red Line, as Ben Chaplin's wife (Miranda Otto) who writes him at the front.
In Knight of Cups, the entire film is an exploration of the Anima, and the director's relationship, in the form of Christian Bale, to her many faces. Even the interaction between male characters is entirely based upon their individual and unique relationship to the Anima. The different faces of the Anima, such as Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman, are sign posts along the journey of the main character as his relationship to the feminine changes as he ages and matures.
Other themes running through all of Malick's films are philosophy and spirituality, usually in the form of a Gnostic Catholicism. Malick is one of the rare directors who even considers having characters who think about God in their life in his films. The big questions that Malick tackles, questions of life and death, love and loss, God, nature and the infinite, are almost never found in any other films. Malick is alone out in the wilderness in trying to understand the world in which he lives, both in its external and internal forms, and the universe he inhabits and the God who created it, be he merciful or not, or if he exists or not, and what that all means to the individual making his way in the world.
In the Knight of Cups this Gnostic Catholicism is a major theme as well. Christian Bale's character is lost amid the decadence and debauchery of a modern day Babylon, and has forgotten his true self and that he is a divine Son of God. The spiritual seeking and struggle on display in Knight of Cups is a common and powerful theme running through all of Malick's films and it is part of what sets him apart from other directors.
HOW TO WATCH A MALICK MOVIE - A PRIMER
Malick's films, especially his later ones and the autobiographical trilogy, are less storytelling as they are meditations. Meditations on God, faith, nature, grace, annihilation, fatherhood, motherhood, childhood, the duality of man, the duality of God, and Malick's cinematic meditation can become meditative for viewers. The key to appreciating Malick's films are to understand that they are not something you actively try to figure out. You don't have to decide if the guy in the red hat is in internal affairs, or if the doctor is really a ghost or the ship's captain is a spy. Watching Malick is, in and of itself, an artistic meditation. A meditation on the internal life of his characters and the character's struggle, as it relates to our own struggle and to our own internal life. Viewers are not consumers of a Malick film, they are participants. The catch being, of course, is that viewers don't participate intellectually with Malick's films, but emotionally and spiritually.
The key to enjoying a Malick film is to stop trying to impose standard storytelling rules upon it, and trying to figure it out consciously. A Malick film is like going to an art exhibit, you don't mentally figure the art out, you just let it wash over you and go for the ride. You trust that the artist/auteur has something to say and that you'll understand it at some point in time. The artist may be working on an unconscious level, beyond the ability of the viewer to articulate how or why the piece moves them. With Malick, it may not even be when the film is over, it may be after you see it a second time, or third time that it resonates with the viewer. Or it may be when an event in the viewer's life changes their perspective and the film then makes more sense to them in retrospect.
Some people may not be ready to hear what Malick is saying. Maybe they have become a prisoner to formula and cultural conditioning. Maybe they've been taught to be a passive consumer and need their films to only be entertainment and can only tolerate their art when it's spoon-fed to them. Maybe Malick's philosophical and theological perspective are off-putting to many viewers who do not share his Catholicism or any belief in God at all. I mean Adam Sandler is a trillionaire and makes a couple of movies a year, and they've made TWO Sex in the City films for God's sake, but poor Terence Malick has only made seven films in the last forty years, so trust me when I tell you that I totally understand if people don't believe in God. The truth is, belief in God is not a requirement to enjoying a Malick film, but belief in art is.
Another requirement to enjoying a Malick film is that you must have lived a life in order to truly appreciate Malick's work. Malick's films are not for some twenty-something who is joyously jaunting through life with the world as their oyster. A Malick film is for those who have experienced the slings and arrows of life and have the scars to prove it, and those who have loved and lost or lost and loved. For example, The Tree of Life is entirely about loss. If you haven't lost a loved one, a dear friend, a child, then maybe the film is a jumbled mush of nonsense. But if you have, like me, lost someone, the film walks you through the questions, the thoughts, the meditations, the doubts, the hopes and the fears of what this life, and the ending of it, all mean. It has no answers, and therein lies the rub.
We have been culturally conditioned to want answers. We pay our $10 and if we are asked a question by a film, then by God that same film better give us answers. And if it doesn't, if we are left walking out of the theatre with questions, with doubt, with a humility before the vastness of the universe and all of time, with nothing more than an understanding of how miniscule and insignificant we are in the big picture of things and yet how meaningful and powerful we are in the lives of others in the same predicament as we are. Well...that causes some people to walk out before the film is over. Or to shut down and seethe while waiting for it to end and then unleashing their boos on anyone within earshot. Or to simply want to go back to sleep walking through life avoiding the only certainty that we are born with...that we will all die. Everyone we know, have known or will ever know, will die. Everything we know, have ever known or will ever know will disappear. And so will we. The clock is ticking.
This is why I love Terrence Malick films, because they feel as if they were made especially for me. Malick and I have lived very different lives, but his films, The Tree of Life, To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, in particular, are as close to my actual inner life and struggles as anything ever captured on film. Malick speaks my language, walks in my world and is able to cut me to the bone and reveal things about my inner being that I wasn't even aware of until he enlightened me. Malick asks me the same questions that I ask myself and struggles with the same answers, or lack of answers, that I struggle with. This is what makes Malick such a genius, and why I admire his work so much, and also why others may loathe his work.
"MEDIOCRITIES EVERYWHERE…I ABSOLVE YOU…I ABSOLVE YOU…I ABSOLVE YOU ALL." - SALIERI
"MOZART, MOZART, FORGIVE YOUR ASSASSIN!! I CONFESS I KILLED YOU…" - SALIERI (AND THE REST OF US)
We live in a world of Salieri's, where mediocrity is rewarded and genius shunned. Some great examples of this are that Steven Spielberg has two Best Director Oscars and Terrence Malick has none. Spielberg is the ultimate Salieri to Malick's Mozart. A comparison of their two war films is proof of that. In 1997, after a twenty year absences from directing, Malick returned with his World War II film, The Thin Red Line, based on the James Jones book. Also that year, Steven Spielberg released his World War II film, Saving Private Ryan. The films could not have been more different and more glaring examples of the genius of one man, Malick, and the pandering mediocrity of the other, Spielberg.
The juxtaposition of these two films is perfect for making the point about Malick as a singularly unique and original artistic voice and brilliant filmmaker. In Saving Private Ryan, a standard formulaic war film, we are shown the devastating effects of war upon the human body. Spielberg's gymnastic D-Day sequence shows the physical brutality of war in a very tense and riveting way. But after that sequence the film falls into the pattern of standard war film tropes. Malick's The Thin Red Line on the other hand, shows the impact of war not only on man's body, but upon his psyche, his spirit and his soul. Malick also has a vividly compelling war action sequence, where Marines must take a hill with Japanese machine gunners atop it, but Malick gives a more nuanced and human view of war beyond the physical carnage of it, by showing how it impacts not only the external life of the soldiers fighting, but the internal life. The torment of war upon the mind, the heart, the humanity and the spirituality of the men forced to fight it is front and center in The Thin Red Line, and completely missing from Saving Private Ryan. The Thin Red Line is the rarest of the rare, a multi-dimensional, deeply intimate war film that leaves us questioning war and our own righteousness, while Saving Private Ryan is simply another one-dimensional, standard war film that never forces us to question our virtue or morality. Saving Private Ryan shows us men surviving war, while The Thin Red Line teaches us that it is what men do to survive in war that does the most damage to them.
Spielberg won a Best Director Oscar for Saving Private Ryan. No one boos or walks out of a Spielberg film because he never questions his audience or makes them think or feel. He just mindlessly and soullessly entertains and leaves us on our way. Malick never let's his audience, or himself, off the hook. He challenges the audience, to surpass their cultural conditioning and to ask themselves the big questions that they don't want to think about.
We are the guilty ones. We are all mini-Salieri's who reward the work of other more famous Salieris. Mediocrity has become King in America. Tom Hanks has won two Best Actor Oscars while Joaquin Phoenix has won none. A malignant mediocrity like Steven Spielberg has two Best Director Oscars, when two of the most rare cinematic geniuses, Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick have none. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, poster children for mediocrity, currently lead our Presidential elections. We have sentenced ourselves to a life term of mediocrity and deceive ourselves by calling it greatness. We are the ones to blame for this, no one else.
It is interesting to me that the people who walked out of The Tree of Life when I saw it, and the people who were so dismayed at the Knight of Cups when I saw it, were older people. These are the people who should most be thinking about the questions of life and death that Terrence Malick raises, yet they were the ones who were the most resistant to these Malick films. Maybe the fact that the next big thing to happen in the life of these folks will be the ending of it, is why they do not want to think about death, and they would rather be mindlessly entertained rather than confronted with their mortality. Of course, their fear and cowardice speaks more to them and their failings than it does to the artistry of Terrence Malick.
The people who would walk out of a Malick film, or boo it upon its conclusion, are the same people who laughed at Van Gogh, Picasso, Jackson Pollack or Mozart. They are the Gatekeepers of Mediocrity, Salieri's all, who want to keep genius in a cage while they whistle by the graveyard of their own worthless lives. I don't hate people who boo Malick films, I pity them. These people are missing out on so much beauty and joy and wisdom. To their credit, they do make me think about what things might I be resistant to out there that may be so fantastically wonderful but which I am too afraid to experience or understand. There is a lot of art in the world which is beyond my limited intellect, but I would never be so presumptuous as to boo it and stamp it as worthless. While I may not intellectually understand Jackson Pollack's work, I can still marvel at its dynamism. The same can be said of Opera, or classical music. While those art forms are things I know very little about, I would not presume to belch my inadequacies upon them in order to not feel stupid. Rather I would try and learn more about them and see if I could find the ageless beauty and wisdom that resides within them.
Malick is an incomparable filmmaker. No one even attempts to do what he is and has been doing in cinema for the last forty years. Terrence Malick is among a very small, handful of true cinematic geniuses the world has ever known. The reality is, if you stand up and walk out of a Malick film, or boo loudly at the completion of a Malick film, that is an indictment of you and your compulsively myopic artistic tastes. Not understanding the genius of a Malick film is not a Malick problem….it is a YOU problem.
The Great Malick Civil War still rages to this day (and obviously, I rage along with it!!), with neither side willing to give an inch, but only one thing is assured…this war will end, and years from now, the fools, the clowns and the idiots who laughed and booed at Malick will be long gone and completely forgotten, but Malick's films will stand as a monument to his genius for the ages to come. Knight of Cups will be among those films which history will revere.