It’s best to just let Knight of Cups happen to you. Don’t waste too much time trying to follow along with any sort of story.
For Terrence Malick fans, Knight of Cups will be extremely familiar. It has all the wandering, wide-angle cinematography, restrained and enigmatic performances, and whispered, cryptic narration that make his work instantly identifiable. For some critics, Malick’s last film, To the Wonder, seemed so stylistically fitting that it approached parody. Knight of Cups takes it a step further, almost completely eschewing narrative for beautiful and striking images that seem to express ideas rather than moving any sort of story forward. Ultimately, this ends up completely liberating Malick as a filmmaker, making Knight of Cups way too inspired and interesting to dismiss. It’s more abstract and experimental than anything he’s done before, even 2011’s Tree of Life. While that film’s focus in on a family in the 1950s, Knight of Cups concerns the present. Even so, Malick’s usual religious and existential themes make a brilliant return, among others.
There’s not much in the way of a solid plot. There are characters with some specific, concrete histories, but they’re shown fleetingly and not elaborated on much. Christian Bale plays Rick, a screenwriter living a hedonistic lifestyle in Hollywood. Troubled relationships with his father, brother, and significant others are shown fleetingly, bits of conversations and physical interactions being shown between them in order to symbolically describe their relationship instead of truly exposing it. There’s an ensemble cast including Cate Blanchett, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, and Natalie Portman (whose performance here, despite its brevity, is among her best). A script was apparently written, though Christian Bale allegedly never got one, and other actors only got bits and pieces. Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman, who only shot for one day, said he had to do a 17-page monolog which never got into the film. What’s really funny is that Christian Bale barely utters a line, and considering how distinct his character is, that’s quite an accomplishment. This is to say that the film is fascinating from the inside as well as the outside; it’s just as fun to sit and watch as it is to read about.
The film is split up into segments named after tarot cards (except for the last sequence, which is simply called freedom). Reading up on the mythology might help one to understand it better, but I find myself almost not wanting to. The most enjoyable aspect of the film, by far, is how it lets you savor its beauty while letting the mystery of the story wash over you. Audiences more used to conventional, plot-driven movies will most likely hate it. One critic after the press screening said something to the effect of “militaries should stop waterboarding people and just show them this film.” And while I loved it, I can’t say I don’t understand that reaction. If you go into Knight of Cups expecting to get caught up in a story, it’s going to be a sore disappointment. But if you go to see Terrence Malick experiment freely in his distinct style, it will be nothing short of a pleasure (assuming you like his style to begin with).
Emmanuel Lubezki, his regular cinematographer, shoots sparse landscapes with a sense of wonder that provides a great contrast to the oppressive and claustrophobic photography used in the urban settings. His regular production designer, Jack Fisk, has an elegant and minimalist approach that creates a dreamlike and sometimes theatrical tone.
In short, it’s best to just let Knight of Cups happen to you. Don’t waste too much time trying to follow along with any sort of story. If you focus on the aesthetics and the constant flow of ideas, you’ll see how this is one of Malick’s fullest and most thematically rich films. | Nic Champion