Knight of Cups (2015)

Knight of Cups (2015)
  • Time: 118 min
  • Genre: Drama | Romance
  • Director: Terrence Malick
  • Cast: Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Wes Bentley, Antonio Banderas, Ben Kingsley


Rick is a slave to the Hollywood system. He is addicted to success but simultaneously despairs at the emptiness of his life. He is at home in a world of illusions but seeks real life. Like the tarot card of the title, Rick is easily bored and needs outside stimulation. But the Knight of Cups is also an artist, a romantic and an adventurer.

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  • Fellini’s 8 1/2 conveyed with Antonioni’s spatial compositions, Terrence Malick’s characteristically gorgeous and poetic Knight of Cups follows its protagonist as he drifts, directionless, through the shards of his life, attempting to create meaning out of moments both mundane and significant, and extricate himself from the creative and spiritual ennui in which he is submerged.

    Christian Bale portrays Rick, ostensibly a Los Angeles-based screenwriter though, with the biographical elements that abound, he seems more like a director. From what we can gather, he has fraught relationships with his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley); the complications appear to have been brought on or perhaps exacerbated by the death of a third brother, who may have taken his own life. In contrast to his remaining brother, who is almost aggressively wired, Rick is detached and disembodied, often gazing out windows or hovering in the periphery. He is the titular Knight of Cups, the tarot card figure who was born of royal blood and “sought a pearl from the depths of the sea,” but who drank from a cup that drained him of all his memories.

    Rick is corroded with emptiness and sleepwalks through life. “I can’t remember the man I wanted to be,” he intones via voiceover, Malick’s preferred method of communication. He seeks comfort, stimulation and inspiration with and from a procession of women, all goddesses of a sort, who offer their bodies and souls and enigmatic words of warning and wisdom before slipping out of his life. There’s the pink-wigged, raccoon-eyed Della (Imogen Poots), who observes, “You don’t want love, you want a love experience,” and reinforces his nagging notion that “We’re not leading the lives we were meant for.” Model Helen (Freida Pinto) says, “There’s something we need to get to.” The fun-loving Las Vegas stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer) teases, “You have a darkness in you.” All exhort him to wake up, to stop dreaming, to begin life. But the prince slumbers on.

    The two women that rule his memories come in the Oscar-winning forms of Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. The latter appears as Elizabeth, a married woman whose affair with Rick results in a guilt-ridden pregnancy. Blanchett is his ex-wife, her eyes ablaze with recrimination and regret for the man whose head was always turned in the other direction, who never wanted to be totally inside their marriage (or outside it either), and who was sincere with the promises he made though those promises never came from the heart.

    Malick has long trafficked in the oblique and impressionistic, and his pointilistic style can be both breathtaking and infuriating. His films are dissembled assemblages, employing an almost personal cinematic language to construct, deconstruct and reconstruct his themes and ideas. Thus a shot of Bale wandering in the wilderness followed by the aurora borealis followed by a woman’s mutating visage followed by a remarkably ecstatic shot of a Hawaiian-shirted dog retrieving tennis balls from the pool. Recitations from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” are incanted over musical passages from Elgar and Grieg. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki once again flexes his visual prowess. Mixing 35mm, 65mm and digital formats, he unearths lyricism in the contrasts between external and internal spaces, in the breadth of the ocean and the confines of a swimming pool, in the ornate furnishings of a Hollywood mansion and the minimalism of apartments and office spaces. Surroundings are simulations (the virtual realities of both Hollywood and Las Vegas) and the glassy modernist cityscape reflect nothing but reflections.

    One can ruminate on the film’s deeply religious heart, its endless referential doubling or its ranking as the presumably final entry in Malick’s unoffical trilogy (The Tree of Life and To The Wonder the other two installments) that meditates over man’s place in the world. What may be most intriguing about Malick’s most recent output is his fusion of silent and musical cinema. Malick has never been a man too trustful of words and he has minimised them to such a degree that they may as well appear as title cards or on-screen graphics. Nevertheless, those spare whisperings add another layer to the density of his work. Many may roll their eyes at yet another Malick film in which women pirouette to and fro, gracefully running away with heads half-turned. To the Wonder was Malick’s version of a musical and Knight of Cups very much functions as one. The choreography of bodies as they connect and disconnect, the manner in which Bale circles his latest paramour, the varying tenor of the embraces he shares with all his lovers – these all sway to a rhythm and harmony of Malick’s making.

    It would be remiss not to mention how tremendously magnetic Bale is as Rick, somehow managing to be simultaneously in and out of the moment, lost and vaporous but anchored in soulful longing.

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