Knight of Cups (2016)
Director: Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale; Antonio Banderas; Cate Blanchett; Brian Dennehy; Teresa Palmer; Freida Pinto; Imogen Poots; Natalie Portman.
Plot: A writer indulging in all that Los Angeles and Las Vegas has to offer undertakes a search for love and self via a series of adventures with six different women.
Writer-Director Terrence Malick’s famously avant-garde style of filmmaking took a look in on itself with a substantiated reflection of the glamour of Hollywood in Knight of Cups (2016), a film that was more linear and consistent in its presentation than some of his more recent pictures but lacking in the real magic that he’s managed to create alongside Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki over the past decade or so.
Knight of Cups is a Terrence Malick picture in every sense that a film can be: its limited dialogue is filled with existentialist questions, the camera moves freely and seemingly without focus throughout many if not all of its scenes, the lighting is completely natural, and the characters are muffled behind the story the camera is so effectively telling. The ways in which it is a Terrence Malick film are unmissable and thus the experience of watching the movie becomes partly moving and almost entirely awe-inspiring.
The ways in which Malick and his crew manipulate the camera and specifically the sound of his pictures give each of his releases an other worldly feel that is so special that the films of this famously reclusive man remain some of the most hotly debated and immensely respected pictures ever released. The Tree of Life was perhaps the pinnacle of this, and the movie was critically acclaimed as a result, but the film was also perhaps the least linear and most experimental of his career, something Malick reined in for the much less successful To the Wonder and has reined in even further for Knight of Cups. This makes each of the latter releases easier gateways into this filmmaker’s hugely individualistic visions of cinema and Knight of Cups specifically has much more Hollywood appeal than that of its two predecessors due to its cast that is as talented as it is popular and the ways in which the film focuses on the immensely popular Hollywood lifestyle and its East Coast setting.
Christian Bale leads the film with a character that is somewhat ambiguous. All we know of him is that he is a screenwriter much like Malick, and that he has come from the East, much like Malick did at the beginning of his career in film when he left New York for Los Angeles. Rick, the character Bale plays, is a man who is lost for words despite his profession and this is something that Malick seems to attribute to his lowly self-indulgence and lack of real commitment towards so-called ‘higher’ or ‘more spiritual’ ventures like blossoming romance and deep-routed love. As such, the camera follows Rick almost exclusively, yet the floaty dialogue is presented mostly by secondary characters such as Rick’s father and his host of partners, played by Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots and Natalie Portman. Each of these partners is dispersed throughout the movie that, in keeping with Malick’s other work, diverts from the typical three act structure and, in this case, actually presents ‘chapters’ to sections of the film in a manner much like those of the silent era of cinema. It is in this dispersion of characters that a real confrontation between the filmmaker’s intentions and the audience’s reception of the movie occurs because it truly is difficult to remain empathetic towards a character that is so indulgent and ultimately flawed as Rick is, and yet so incredibly successful both within his career and with regard to his romantic pursuits. This is a disconnect on a level so critical that Knight of Cups, for all of its beauty and intricacy, finds great difficulty in overcoming.
The visual work of both Malick and Lubezki is of the absolute greatest quality currently witnessed in cinema anywhere across the globe, and their combination in Knight of Cups is certainly something to marvel at. The purity in which the camera presents each of the actors makes every one of them feel more real and therefore more easy to connect with or understand. For as little focus on actors’ performances as there is in recent Malick films, and the limited time each of them is seen on screen, the camera and its related elements (lighting etc.) work seemingly effortlessly to ensure that each moment is as stocked with pure, raw, realism as is possible, and that each actor is seen as naturally if not more naturally than throughout the rest of their career, adding a distinctive and identifiable aura to the movies as a whole, despite how other worldly the floating camera and choices of lens can make the films feel at times. Even so, the beauty of the picture and the raw emotion of the camera’s presentation of seemingly above average performances from Natalie Portman and Teresa Palmer in particular in this movie, do not really contribute to detracting from the ultimately self-indulgent nature of the film.
Knight of Cups, much like The Tree of Life in particular, is an ultimately personal movie. The character of Rick is like Malick in many different ways but most notably in how he is a screenwriter new to Hollywood and how he has also had one of his brothers die too young. Personal isn’t necessarily bad, and is actually almost always good in terms of this particular filmmaker’s output, but in Knight of Cups this personal presentation seems privileged in a way that has the film lacking the heart of its predecessors. The central character’s relationships anchor the film but they are not important for how they start or end, they are only important in how they existed at all, and this paints Bale (who is thought of as a representation of Malick himself due to the comparisons Rick has to Malick) as unlikable. Unfortunately for Malick and his fans, this also paints the movie as using female characters and relationships as plot devices and/or emotional devices for enhancing the film’s central character with not much more offered, which is hugely different to that of his work in every other film he has made, and comes across as cheap and almost even lazy, something I’m sure would be an impossible criticism towards any of this director’s six other movies.
Somewhat more in line with the legend of Malick however is how the quality of editing really helps to rein in some less interesting moments and present them as important parts of a larger puzzle that seems to be representative of memories and the ways in which the mind wanders between thoughts. This is, in of itself, interesting, but once it’s linked with the visual presentation of the shots (that are much like dreams or memories, too), it becomes truly mesmerising in the most truly Malikesque way possible, saving the seemingly below expectation script and the self-indulgent themes from destroying the movie.
Heading into 2016 it seemed unusual that Knight of Cups’ release date was pushed further and further back given its 2015 festival debut, but upon watching the film, it seems more obvious as to why it was never quite trusted by distributors to be released in and around awards season and was never lauded by critics upon its eventual (limited) distribution between March and May 2016. Lacking the spirit of its predecessors and straying close to parody in terms of its self-indulgence, Knight of Cups was a film that seemed to be far removed from the quality of the rest of Malick’s work and was only saved by some sensational editing and the aura that each Malick film brings with it; that of being dream-like and other-worldly. If you are to watch a Malick film with the intention of having your socks blown off then Knight of Cups certainly isn’t the one for you, but for any Malick fan or fan of cinema in general, this has to be a must-see because as self-indulgent as it may be, this movie is still a Terrence Malick movie in every sense that it can be and is therefore something to be treasured among film watchers, scholars and critics. This famously different director may have swung and missed in so many ways with this one, but it’s still a pleasure to see something new from a man of such genius.