I can’t claim to be a lifelong, or even a longtime, Angeleno. I moved here five years ago, and slid into its rhythms with a certain ease. Like most big cities, there are many components that make up Los Angeles, but unlike most big cities, its sprawl and lack of a robust public transit system keeps those components more cleanly separated than similar subsections of New York or Paris. As such, one can drive twenty miles through this city and pass through a dozen versions of it. I’ve seen plenty of films set in Los Angeles, but I don’t recall one that addressed this, or the effect it has on the way we present ourselves.
Rick (Christian Bale) is a screenwriter adrift in a sort of familiar “showbiz excess.” He beds many women, gets lost in parties and alcohol. It requires the ground literally moving below him (in the form of a startling earthquake) to awaken him from this slumber. Luckily, perhaps, he lives in Los Angeles, where this sort of thing will happen from time to time. The rest of the film is spent watching him figure out what to do about this realization. He revisits women he dated, or married; he meets several new ones. They’re all beautiful, because this is still a movie. He reconnects with old friends, but finds their insights - mostly about how to score chicks and make more money, and feel good about it - uninsightful. He visits his brother and their father, but they only rehash old, brutal arguments, inching and retreating from whatever insight might reconnect them.
So he drives. And walks. And observes. He travels to the desert, to the beach, hoping for a taste of the natural world that the city has paved over. But what is “the city”? Sometimes, it’s like something out of science fiction - women in various enclosures (like the models that lounge behind glass near the Standard Hotel's check-in counter), pink lighting, streamlined white hallways; one half-expects a soothing robot to greet him as he enters such worlds. Other areas feel post-apocalyptic; the ruined storefronts of downtown or half-abandoned, intertwining freeways that are our transportive relief and our spiritual doom. They’re called “surface streets” for a reason - the freeways remove us from humanity. Those lower avenues feel kept alive by those left to survive, who jump in and out of frame, on the move from the law, responsibility, or themselves. There are the studio lots, the constructed cities of Paramount or Warner Brothers that are just real enough to drift to, but too unreal to stay. There are the truly wealthy areas, the mansions that feel like fortresses where guests can wander endlessly like the haunted halls in Last Year at Marienbad.
Who is Rick in these spaces? A traveler, a king, an ambassador, a performer; more often, a man completely divorced from his society. Who are any of us but what we’re called to be by our environments? Movies sell the illusion of independence. Most people react to or against the person they’re perceived to be, caught in whatever river they fell into that morning, that month, that year. Los Angeles is many lakes, and it’s easy to drown. Knight of Cups is Rick’s journey towards building a canoe while ensuring the piranhas don’t consume him. Malick’s films have taken a deeply autobiographical turn of late, starting with The Tree of Life in 2011. Unlike most people who don’t fit in with Los Angeles (Malick worked in Hollywood in the 1970s, but has lived elsewhere - in Europe and Texas, mostly - ever since), he doesn’t seem to have any need to look down on it. Some of the people are silly, perhaps (this is, somewhat refreshingly, the funniest film he’s made since at least his debut, Badlands), but the city itself is more vibrant and alive than it’s been onscreen in ages. Stepping back out onto the streets of LA once it was over, my appreciation for its familiar glamour was reinvigorated. “Every moment is perfect,” a character says in voiceover later on in the film, and Malick demonstrates that to be true better than anybody. You just have to look for it.