KNIGHT OF CUPS (USA/IFI/118mins)
Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, Wes Bentley.
THE PLOT: Rick (Christian Bale) is a writer in Hollywood, whose glamorous life of parties and excess holds no thrall for him any more, as he struggles with where his life is going and what his true purpose is, he crosses paths with six women, and has very different relationships with each of them.
THE VERDICT: Ah Terrence Malick, ever since the wonderful, experiential and divisive ‘Tree Of Life’, audiences have been waiting for the director to bring something to us that could get us thinking in the way his 2011 film did. To the Wonder failed to be even half as engaging as ‘Tree of Life’, and although ‘Knight of Cups’ is not as alienating as his previous film, there is a feel of “first world problems” about the entire thing.
The cast of ‘Knight of Cups’ is stellar, with performances from Christian Bale, Imogen Poots, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley and Antonio Banderas. As well as these, many famous faces turn up in cameo, including Jason Clarke, Joe Lo Truglio, Joe Manangiello and Kelly Cutrone in a rather hilarious turn. The trouble is that while all of the characters that orbit Christian Bale as Rick seem to have a clear idea of who they are and their relationship with him, Rick just drifts through every scene; more of an observer than a character, and since he is the one we spend the most time with, this becomes a problem.
Terrence Malick’s screenplay is one that deals with many issues, all of which are framed through the classic Rider-Waite Tarot card deck – from which the film takes its title – and as well as this, Malick uses Christian allegory tales both as voiceover and inspiration for the film, and the whole thing comes off as messy and indulgent.
Beautifully shot, ‘Knight of Cups’ does have a strong message about people using alcohol and other people to hide their pain, as well as the depression that can come with a mid life crisis, but this is so buried underneath rambling monologues, glossy visuals and indulgent conversations that it is hard to root for a wealthy, successful and handsome lead character who seems to be suffering from a malaise no worse than affulenza and feeling disconnected from the world around him. This is a gorgeous looking advert for first world problems, although a stronger edit could have led to the film exploring real issues, the 118 minute running time swallows any borderline profundity whole.
In all, ‘Knight of Cups’ looks incredible on the big screen but although Malick tries to discuss real issues that people struggle with, having a lead character that is more of an observer than participant in the film, and a story that feels like we are drifting through the memories of someone having them erased a lá ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ leaves ‘Knight of Cups’ feeling bloated and indulgent, and the audience wondering just why they should really care.
RATING: 2/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

Knight of Cups
Review by Brogen Hayes
2.0Bloated & indulgent
  • filmbuff2011

    A new Terrence Malick film is always a tantalising prospect for any serious film lover. The visionary American auteur has marked out his cinematic territory since his striking debut Badlands in 1973. Knight Of Cups is a typical Malick joint, heavy on reflective voiceover and soaking atmosphere and thin on a conventional story.

    Screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) is in an existential mid-life crisis. He searches for meaning among his work in Tinseltown, as he wanders the studio lots and the beaches of Los Angeles. The death of his brother haunts him. He meets with his mother Ruth (Cherry Jones), father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) and brother Barry (Wes Bentley), who are going through their own person crises. Over the course of the film, he has dalliances, flirtations and empty relationships with a number of women played by Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto and Isabel Lucas. Could each woman bring him closer to his place in the world… or are they just distractions from what is really eating at his soul?

    Knight Of Cups is a title that alludes to the tarot card, which when upright represents change and new excitements, particularly of a romantic nature. Upside down, it indicates recklessness and unreliability. That’s essentially where we find Rick throughout the film. Divided into eight distinctive chapters from The Moon to Freedom, the film is a reflection on what it means to be a modern man in a Hollywood where certain expectations are placed on anyone living there. That meaning at least gives the film a frame of reference from which to judge it by.

    It’s not all that surprising to learn that there was no script for Knight Of Cups and that all of the scenes were improvised. It’s an impressionistic, experimental film which demands much from the viewer. There’s a heavy amount of voiceover work, often overlapping actual dialogue. So, we only really get to know the characters through their internal thoughts. That’s not a complaint though. The revolving-door characters are briefly sketched well enough through the voiceover to each make an individual impact on Rick’s life. It’s refreshing to find a film which allows you to draw your own conclusions about its meaning, without spoonfeeding the audience. That’s the power of a Malick film. There’s not much of a story, but does there need to be?

    When a film like this is so visually dazzling and immersive, you can forgive its eccentricities. Although the trademark shots of skies, beaches and running water are present and correct, Malick turns his seductive gaze on the disconnected sprawl of Los Angeles. He shoots it at night from ground level, making it even more beautiful than Michael Mann does. He also manages to make Las Vegas glitter without being tacky, with luminous cinematography from The Revenant’s Emmanuel Lubezki. A recurring use of Wojciech Kilar’s music Exodus, which memorably featured in the trailer for Schindler’s List, gives the film a soulful and evocative touch. Among all the imagery, there’s fun to be had spotting a raft of famous faces – look fast for the likes of Ryan O’Neal, Jason Clarke and Michael Wincott, as well as listen out for the voices of Ben Kingsley and the late John Gielgud.

    As beautiful and reflective as it is, Knight Of Cups is probably only for devoted Malick fans like this reviewer who know what to expect from the master of contemplative cinema. It’s not quite top-drawer Malick like The Thin Red Line or The Tree Of Life, but even a reasonably good Malick film is better than most of the films out there at the moment. ****