KNIGHT OF CUPS
Writer/Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Cherry Jones, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas
The first line of dialogue from Christian Bale’s Rick has him pontificating on the idea that he was “living the life of someone I didn’t know.” Now, I doubt that director Terrence Malick cast Bale solely based on his name but it does seem coincidental that Christian is also the name of the main character in The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. In it, Christian leaves his hometown, the “City of Destruction”, in an attempt to reach the “Celestial City” atop Mount Zion. Director Terrence Malick opens his latest film, Knight of Cups, not with the quote from Christian Bale’s character but with a reference to Bunyan’s work. Using this concept is one way to navigate Malick’s film. If you’ve seen his latest films like The Tree of Life (2011) or To the Wonder (2013), you are aware that he is known to shy away from the traditional narrative structure of a film. He would rather flood you with images, metaphors, sounds, and musings to carry us along on Rick’s journey.
Rick is part of the Hollywood scene working as a screenwriter, but like many, is at a crossroads asking himself where he went wrong along the way. Malick has Rick wandering the streets of Los Angeles and Las Vegas reflecting on the various people in his life. The two reoccurring figures are his younger brother Barry (Bentley) who’s living in a barren apartment and his father Joseph (Dennehy). The three of them have a turbulent relationship. The rest of the film consists of Rick and the bevy of women he’s wooed over the years including ex-wife Nancy (Blanchett), a woman he got pregnant (Portman), a stripper (Palmer), and a couple of others in between all of them. Malick divides Knight of Cups into chapters devoted to his relationships. Like the title of the film, they are named after tarot cards like The High Priestess, The Hermit, The Hanged Man to name a few. Maybe if I’ve had more readings I would have known what each meant in conjunction with the scene.
Malick keeps his films as whimsical, dreamlike, and mysterious to point where there may be no right or wrong way to view them. I could be wrong on that opinion. His films aren’t the easiest to watch, and at this stage in his career he’s making films that audiences either love or hate. Knight of Cups won’t win over any new fans. Frankly, I joined the Malick club after viewing The Tree of Life. My first was 1998’s The Thin Red Line when it first hit theaters, but I didn’t know what to expect, so I came out less than enthused. I admit that I need to go back and revisit that one. I’ve grown to really appreciate his work as I’ve seen his shift from his straightforward lovers on the run (1973’s Badlands) to his recent crop of abstract allegories.
I think you have to go into Knight of Cups with some sort of knowledge of Malick’s way of filmmaking. If “Malick” was an adjective, this film would be extremely Malick. There are two ways you can watch this film. The first being that you can watch it and try to dissect every little meaning along the way as you try to draw parallels to Pilgrim’s Progress, tarot, Christianity, or a variety of other philosophical ideas. The second mode of viewing would mean that you’d have to turn that all off and let the wave of visuals take over and lead you along on the very same exploration that Rick is going on. You feel the sand beneath your toes during the many scenes where he’s walking on the beach, you hear the hustle and bustle of the Hollywood party, and you feel the emptiness inside of him. You try to hang on to every word and sound he takes in. Despite being the lead of the film, Christian Bale has very few actual lines of dialogue throughout the movie. In a majority of the scenes he is silent as we listen to his scene partners carry on in a voiceover, oftentimes a whispered voiceover. I tried to shut my brain off and just let the film carry me along the way with Rick, but naturally, I couldn’t do that. I tried to make sense out of everything, but Malick makes that really hard. I don’t believe it’s told in a linear fashion, but again, I could be wrong. Bale never changes appearances unlike Bentley or Dennehy, so it is evident that he’s not experiencing these people in real time. At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily feel like we’re going back in time with each scene, but rather living in that reflective state as Rick remembers the conversations he’s had.
Malick seems to revisit the family themes he explored in The Tree of Life. If Tree was supposedly autobiographical, is Knight of Cups a version of how Malick views his time in Hollywood? I don’t know if I quite believe that concept, as his reclusive nature doesn’t necessarily align with someone who wafts through Hollywood parties and goes from one woman to another. On the other hand, Knight continues that same mystical approach he did with Tree with To the Wonder. Is this an unofficial trilogy for Malick or just his current mode of filmmaking? He shot another movie called Weightless right after he filmed Knight back in 2012. If you look closely you can see billboards for old movies and TV shows running at that time in the Los Angeles area. It also stars Bale, Blanchett, Portman, and many other A-list celebs. Who will make the final cut? We’ll only find out once it’s released as Malick takes his time at editing what he filmed and then turning it into the final product we see in theaters.
Malick, along with his lifelong production designer Jack Fisk and three-time Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, continue to shape his films with an eye on nature and life from a literal sense to a metaphorical one. Don’t worry; there are no dinosaurs in this one like we saw in Tree. There’s no denying the beauty these three men are able to present onscreen. Even if you don’t understand every concept or hidden meaning, you can revel in the artistry at work. There are many moviegoers and critics who are fed up with Malick’s films. They are not for everyone, and I completely get that. I continue to find myself fascinated with his movies. For me, Knight of Cups is a film that will no doubt grow with age and multiple viewings. I needed that first watch to take it in. Now it’s time to dig deep, do a little research, and go back for a necessary second viewing.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? Are you a Malick fan?
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS