MOVIE REVIEW: Knight of Cups

(Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures via


The title of "Knight of Cups" from polarizing filmmaker Terrance Malick refers to the tarot card of the same name, a symbol that represents someone "constantly bored, in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined."  You don't say?  That label may just apply to anyone in the audience watching this film.  Your copacetic taste is better than this film and you will be spiritless and dispassionate, matching the assigned astrology.

The title is just the beginning of the existential nature Terrance Malick is gunning for in this bewildering jumble.  Framed with his usual merger of natural and human imagery, "Knight of Cups" seeks Christian narrative allusions to John Bunyon's 1678 allegory "The Pilgrim's Progress" and the 3rd century apocrypha of the Acts of Thomas, particularly the “Hymn of the Pearl.”  After a ten-minute preface mixing Earth orbit footage with an L.A. earthquake and jets in the sky, the film proceeds with eight labeled chapters.  

The segments all follow a self-destructive and clearly depressed Hollywood screenwriter named Rick, played by Academy Award winner Christian Bale.  We rarely leave his point of view.  Hints are given to his father (Brian Dennehy), brother (Wes Bentley), and ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) through their shared voiceovers.  Rick intersects with various women and muses (Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Frieda Pinto, Teresa Palmer, and Isabel Lucas), each which represent different vices, frolics, and mistakes made with little fulfillment or overall meaning.  In the end, Rick is left observing, reflecting, and wondering.  After two hours, you will be left doing even less.

“Knight of Cups” was made without a script through complete improvisation.  The very talented ensemble of actors and actresses put their all into their self-created sketches only see them tatter and tumble into abstract eccentricity.  Right when you think any given scene would extend to something clarifying about Rick and his connections, the camera’s eye takes an infinite amount of distracted pauses to follow the assumed beauty to be found in jets and helicopters flying overhead, toddlers in the street, landscapers with leaf blowers, walking pelicans, and trivial nuances of interior decorating, among others.  Performances feel pinched and choked by this wandering. 

To call the film’s pace cohesive would be a lie.  To call it languid would be an understatement.  In other words, it's trademark Terrance Malick, with all the window drapes, bed sheets, and classical music cues you’ve come to expect from the man behind “The Tree of Life” (a must-read review) and “To the Wonder” in recent years.  The man is a pretentious acquired taste for even the most devoted cinephile.  Yes, he’s an artist, but he’s becoming aloof, gaudy, and unreachable. 

A common label for Terrance Malick is “experimental.”  That label suits the free form “Knight of Cups” as warning label instead of a badge of honor.  It is too empty to be taken as fascinating.  Take a read into the trivia behind the film’s production and marvel at how anything coherent could have been found.  Too many elements of this film’s themes and randomness feel retreaded, even for Malick.  If you were to double the speed of the film and take away its photography and budget, it would feel as incidental as this mock avant garde high school theater troupe gag from "Saturday Night Live." 

We’ve seen the disillusioned middle-aged man who has lost a brother before.  If you've seen Sean Penn meander with melancholy amid nondescript skyscrapers, natural valleys, or beaches, then watching Christian Bale doing much of the same isn't going to evoke any resonating appreciation.  We've seen Malick's attempts to poetically shadow domestic human scenes with the larger natural world we inhabit.  Most of all, we've now heard much too much of this willowy narration style that reeks of total obscure vagueness that cannot be construed as character development.  With “Knight of Cups,” this craft has reached a point where it is repetitive, not experimental, both overall and within the two hours of the single film itself.

The only reason to award even a single star for "Knight of Cups" is the always-extraordinary and artful cinematography of three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, one of Malick’s trusted collaborators.  You could mute this film and leave it in the background at an oncologist office's waiting room and it would calm nervous patients with ambivalence.   His smooth and effortless eye for intimacy and scope is undeniable.  Sadly, that beauty is wasted on a film like this when Lubezki's work of zooms and pans is sliced and diced into an endless collection of the most gorgeous 4-8 second establishing shots from a cologne or fashion commercial known to man.

LESSON #1: GOING TO BEACH IS A GREAT DIY DATE—Like a downward spiral played by a broken record, Rick seems to take every woman he ever courts to the beach in repetitive scenes where they prance in the surf with gaiety.  Considering the aforementioned roster of beauties playing those many women, it’s a move of sexy brilliance with a Colt 45 success rate.  Try it on your next date. 

LESSON #2: IT’S HARD TO FEEL SORRY FOR HOLLYWOOD TYPES WHEN THEY ARE DEPRESSED—Yes, depression is a real disease that isn’t exclusive to socioeconomic class.  No one should wish that on anyone.  However, less pity is assigned to the guy who can drive nice cars, live in decadence, and spend disposable cash on a transient lifestyle of the finer things.  Sorry.  Go pay a really good psychiatrist and spare me two hours of forlorn and opulence.

LESSON #3: ALL ANYONE REALLY WANTS AND NEEDS IS A LOVING AND STABLE RELATIONSHIP—As bewildering and dull as Rick’s trance is, we can clearly see that he lacks a true compass or partner.  His career lifestyle has fogged his vision, his family is chaotic, and his romantic relationships end dishearteningly.  Those are three places where a guy should be finding or possessing stability, not losing it.