"Do you imagine your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness? Truth?" a Japanese soldier ponders in a voiceover after his position is overrun at Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line. It’s a line that could sum up much of Terrence Malick’s work.
Malick’s films, from the beginning, have been treatises on suffering. The Bonnie-and-Clyde duo from Badlands (1974) and the grifter con artists from Days of Heaven (1978) were all looking to fill holes in their souls, as were the soldiers of The Thin Red Line (1998) and the explorers of The New World (2005). Following his hiatus in the eighties and early nineties, Malick shifted from a personal malaise—individuals who don’t quite fit in with the world—to a more generalized discomfit. Strangers in a strange land, if you will, struggling through war and disease to find a place in the world they hope to inhabit.
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The director’s work over the last few years—starting with The Tree of Life (2011) and continuing through To the Wonder (2012)—has tried to meld the sensibilities that seemed to rest on either side of Malick’s 20-year break. These films attempt to straddle deeply personal and more universal truths, utilizing constant, shifting voiceovers and fragmented, non-narrative montages to convey a sense of upheaval and unmoored, foundering existential angst.
Knight of Cups (2016) is the most affected of Malick’s recent works, and that’s saying something given Tree of Life, which famously diverted from the plot to spend some time with dinosaurs. It’s also the most effective of Malick’s recent productivity boom, a heart wrenching wandering through the wreckage of screenwriter Rick’s (Christian Bale) personal and professional life. Wracked by self-doubt, troubled by his choices, Rick strolls through Los Angeles looking for something like absolution. Or, failing that, understanding.
Or, failing that, companionship.
It’s an odd kind of wreckage, Rick’s. He is a screenwriter sought after by the biggest and brightest talents—he’s offered a devil’s bargain to sell his soul for fame and glory and riches. And his personal life seems fine, if you’re the sort who thinks that life is little more than parties at clubs and mansions owned by movie stars.
But there’s darkness under the surface. He squabbles with his brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy). He seems unsatisfied with the coterie of statuesque young things that flit in and out of his apartment in varying states of undress. But it’s his interactions with his ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett) and a currently married paramour, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), that show how truly unmoored he is. His courtship of Elizabeth and its dissolution forms the closest thing to a narrative arc that Knight of Cups has to offer. But the moments we spend with Nancy are the most devastating.
"You turned more unkind to me," Nancy says to Rick as she discusses their dissolving marriage, one he could never oblige to wholly nor drop out of entirely. A wealthy, attractive man without commitments—they were childless, Nancy and Rick—keeping his options open? Perhaps. More likely one who could not commit to a good thing in front of him, one whose eye wandered more out of curiosity than lust. It’s a segment designed to break the heart, if you’ll let it.
I can understand why some would be hesitant to let Knight of Cups work its charms; it’s a decidedly esoteric feature, one committed to the narrative power of montage and heavily reliant on voiceovers to clue us in on what’s happening. And it’s a decidedly narrow sort of feature, one concerned with the inner workings of a man struggling with distinctly masculine insecurities and flitting through a wonderland committed to satisfying his every physical need.
Simply put: It’s the most Malicky of Malick’s recent films, relying on all his tricks and his tradecraft to convey a feeling rather than a story. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, well, you should seek another knight.