Terence Malick’s Feverish Dream in ‘Knight of Cups’

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CHICAGO – I’ve been quoting Martin Scorsese over the years, that he said “movies are a psychotic’s feverish dream on display.” In searching for those words, I found he never said it. He did say they are “dreams with eyes open.” So let us combine the two quotes in analyzing Terence Malick’s “Knight of Cups.”

At first experience – and it’s very possible the first will be the last – it would seem that “Cups” is self indulgent, redundant and sloppy. Well, doesn’t that sound like a typical dream? Director Terrence Malick is famous for how he communicates his cinema stories, and dreaminess is one of his main techniques, even in a war movie (“The Thin Red Line”). He spent two years editing “Knight of Cups, the story of a screenwriter who wanders through the dreamscape of his life, randomly focusing on both small and large details. The results may be fatalistically uneven, but the nature of it all can be interpreted as righteous, as what is life and memory but a random series of illusionary encounters?

Rick (Christian Bale) is a screenwriter living a high level existence in Los Angeles. His life revolves around his present and past, which includes relationships with ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), ruined girlfriend Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and father Joseph (Brian Dennehy). His meanderings include empty movie lots, Hollywood parties and idyllic landscapes.

Christian Bale
Rick (Christian Bale) Floats Downstream in ‘Knight of Cups’
Photo credit: Broad Green Pictures

Rick is haunted a bit by his past, especially through the brother he could not save, and with a father he couldn’t connect to. His coupling relationships are mostly failures, and he flashes back to the grit and good times of moments within them. He also seems disconnected from what he actually does, as everyone in the film business talks right through him.

The film’s story is up for interpretation, and it needs a close study. This is an atmosphere in which losing yourself is not such a bad thing. Conventional narrative in movies can be as stiff as someone reciting “Little Red Riding Hood.’ Malick is presenting the story of Rick as a series of images, both remembered and experienced in time. Think of it like the old adage about “life flashing before your eyes” when encountering a crisis. Rick’s life is flashing.

The actors have said in interviews that for the most part, they had no clue about the notion of character or structure while filming the movie. Terrence Malick relied mostly on outline and improvisation, and put together the film in post production. There is a scene in “Casablanca,” for example, in which Humphrey Bogart (another Rick) nods his head to indicate that the cafe’s band play the French national anthem, which is a key moment in the film. He was asked on set to do the nod as a random action, but didn’t know why. The actors in “Knight of Cups” don’t know “why” throughout the whole filming process, and were provided their motivations through Malick’s final cut.

The title refers to one of the face cards in a “Tarot Card” deck, and the film divides its “stories” through title cards using Tarot names (“The Moon,” “The Hanged Man,” “The High Priestess,” etc.), and it will be for future film scholars to dissect meaning from the actions after the titles, but there are characters associated with each segment. Maybe the saddest part is “Death,” with the flashback of Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth. Despite her ethereal beauty and desperate intent, the character of Rick abdicates responsibility through the memory.

Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale
Nancy (Cate Blanchett) Joins Rick in ‘Knight of Cups’
Photo credit: Broad Green Pictures

Like his previous film, “The Tree of Life,” Malick flashes back to a childhood scene in “Knight of Cups,” and that segment is so similar to “Tree” that they could be interchanged between the two films, and that redundancy is both maddening and savory (as to WTF?). The pacing – as you may well imagine – is best described as non linear, so yes it is a two hour dream, conveniently separated by title cards. If only real dreams were that well served.

Who or what is “Knight of Cups” for? Who or what was the French surrealist film “Last Days at Marienbad,” or the films of Andy Warhol “for”? The challenge of any art form is in the mind’s eye of the beholder, and director Terrence Malick has given us “Knight of Cups” for further consideration, just like Walt Disney Studios gave us “Zootopia” last week. Pick, Experience, Enjoy!

“Knight of Cups” continues its limited release on March 11th. See local listings for theaters and show times. Featuring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Thomas Lennon, and Nick Offerman. Written and directed by Terrence Malick. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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