A film review by Craig J. Koban May 7, 2016


2016, R, 118 mins.


Christian Bale as Rick  /  Wes Bentley as Barry  /  Brian Dennehy as Joseph  /  Isabel Lucas as Isabel  /  Imogen Poots as Della  /  Cate Blanchett as Nancy  /  Teresa Palmer as Karen  /  Freida Pinto as Helen  /  Natalie Portman as Elizabeth  /  Antonio Banderas as Tonio  /  Armin Mueller-Stahl as Fr. Zeitlinger


Written and directed by Terrence Malick

Terrence Malick is one of our greatest living film directors.  

There’s simply no questioning that.  

He made, for my money, the most fiercely ambitious film of the current decade in THE TREE OF LIFE and his previous track record of masterful efforts largely speak for themselves.  He’s an auteur of the highest and most esteemed order and one whose very own enigmatic stature in the industry is part of his films’ timelessly hypnotic allure. 

Something has happened, though: He’s oddly become more prolific (three films since 2011 after just 4 between 1973 and 2005), which as seemingly fantastic as that sounds has somehow robbed the filmmaker of his mysteriously iconic presence as a silver screen artist.  Perhaps both intriguingly and ultimately disappointingly, Malick has also become a more liberated filmmaker in terms of being more experimental.  On one level, you have to appreciate his sheer audacity with absconding away from overused and stale Hollywood storytelling conventions and practices.  It could easily be argued that his work as of late has smirked at traditional three-act plotting structure and instead have become ethereal tone poems with a dreamlike aura, filled with a series of free-flowing and disconnected imagery that, I think, are trying to mimic the ways we subconsciously view, experience, and respond to the world around us.   

This brings me to KNIGHT OF CUPS, which, to be fair, offers up every stylistic element that we’ve come to fully expect from Malick’s late career films (an all over the map pace, multiple philosophically heavy voiceover tracks, minimal on-screen dialogue, staccato editing, spontaneously loose camera work, etc.), but I’ve personally reached a point with them where I simply demand more than his overwhelming brand of avant garde eccentricity.  KNIGHT OF CUPS is a punishingly maddening and self-indulgent exercise in artistic pretentiousness.  I felt more relived than deeply moved when the final end credits rolled on.  It’s essentially a series of beguilingly sumptuous and painterly images in desperate search of a way to coalesce with one another to form…something.  A narrative (as much as Malick allows for)?  A unifying mood?  A thematic undercurrent?  I don’t have the foggiest idea.   I have no problem with obliquely engineered films of challenging impressionistic impenetrability, but KNIGHT OF CUPS is almost intolerably impenetrable at times.   



Contrary to what many critics have let on, there is some semblance of an actual plot here, insofar as it contains the spiritual journey of a lonely and troubled character as he interacts with a series of other lonely and troubled characters.  KNIGHT OF CUPS (a title derived from a Tarot card) finds inspiration from the 1678 Christian allegory THE PILGRIM’S PROGRESS, but seeing Malick connecting its dots with those in his film and how they relate to the personas that populate it seems like an act of immense overreaching on his part.   The “pilgrim” of this film is Rick (Christian Bale), a talented, but unavoidably depressed Los Angeles based screenwriter whose life has become hopelessly adrift in night after night of boozing, partying, and scoring with as many woman that will have him as possible.  He has multiple flings with multiple women, and oddly enough, for a film strangely lauded for its structurelessness, Malick does break his story down into eight distinct threads that highlight Rick's experiences with not only members of his estranged family, but also with all of the women that he beds.  When not dealing with his father (Brain Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley), Rick navigates his way several thorny romantic relationships, included one with a impetuous young woman (Imogen Poots), a model (Frieda Pinto), a stripper (Teresa Palmer), his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) and a woman from his past that he caused harm to (Natalie Portman). 

Rick is an empty vessel as a character, which I guess is appropriate.  He’s traumatized by the death of one of his siblings and tries to medicate himself with all of the hedonistic excesses that his Hollywood player lifestyle affords him.  Women, obviously enough, figure highly into this, seeing as he uses them – in one form or another – to numb his personal pains while simultaneously not fully comprehending the pain he inflicts on them in the process.   KNIGHT OF CUPS certainly benefits from containing themes that are worthy of meta-cinematic introspection, even though movies about the inside politics of movie making in Hollywood  - not to mention what that does to certain people that work within it while struggling to find their place in the world - have been told before and to much more fulfilling and dramatically impactful effect.  Still, it’s a drastically different type of subject matter for Malick to tackle considering the rich variety of films that pepper his resume, which is to be appreciated.   

Yet, what the hell does Malick have to say about his subject matter?  Does he feel pity for Rick as a misplaced and despondent soul or is he mocking him for his self-absorbent level of pettiness and amoral lifestyle?  Moreover, what is Malick trying to relay about the very industry that he works within?  What is he critiquing here?  The decadence of Rick’s work and personal life?  Toxic Hollywood elitism?  Malick deals with many potential areas of thoughtful and contemplative focus, but never satisfyingly explores them and capitalizes on their inherent tantalizing conundrums.  KNIGHT OF CUPS also makes it very, very difficult to actually care about Rick.  He’s hard to relate to and invest in because, frankly, Malick’s approach to his characters here is jarringly indifferent and cold.  When it boils right down to it, Rick is a filthy rich, disturbingly handsome, and deeply well off man that aimlessly wanders through LA gorging on every new erotic encounter that’s presented to him.  He also pathetically manipulates women as puppets for his own unhealthy brand of self-medication.  It’s simply hard to give a hoot about this guy or his exploits; he’s simply an affluent and privileged a-hole that flaunts his privileged lifestyle.  He rarely elicited my sympathy.  He basically deserves to be slapped. 

KNIGHT OF CUPS, to be fair, is a gorgeous visual odyssey through and through.  Malick once again recruited multiple Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (he previously shot Malick’s THE NEW WORLD, TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER), with predictably lush and attractive results.  On a level of pure bravura imagery, KNIGHT OF CUPS is a film that begs to be actively experienced, not passively watched.  But for as monumentally beautiful as the film is to look at, Malick’s intensely obscure approach to the underlining material makes the whole enterprise so irritatingly difficult to grasp on any profound level of emotional payoff.  Scenes morph within one another and then abruptly cut to unrelated imagery, characters speak to one another via streams of incongruent musings that are initially fascinating in approach, but eventually become more tiresomely ostentatious the longer the film progresses.  I get it.  I really do.  Malick is trying to duplicate the sensation of the chaotic randomness of Rick’s emotional state and the meandering nature of his personal journey, but his uncompromisingly abstract and obscure aesthetic strokes doesn’t necessarily make for good drama.   

Beyond all of that, it has been commented on that KNIGHT OF CUPS is Malick’s “funniest” film.  I didn’t find myself particularly laughing much throughout it, even though it does contain individual moments (usually taking place at the many industry parties that Rick finds himself at) when some of the dialogue exchanges have a sarcastic bite, but KNIGHT OF CUPS is insufferably bogged down by its own level of humorlessly smug self-importance.  This movie takes itself so bloody seriously that it forgets at times that it should be a scathing and incendiary satire about Hollywood soullessness.  KNIGHT OF CUPS contains relative kings and queens of the movie acting world, an enthralling and admirably rich visual tapestry, and a smorgasbord of interesting ideas at its core, but none of them bare successful fruit because Malick’s overall approach here is so jarringly off-putting and shapeless that even die hard fanboys of his will have difficulty trudging their way through the film.   

Sitting through KNIGHT OF CUPS felt like arduous, endurance testing work for me, which is a sentiment that, years ago, I would have never mentioned in relation to the limitlessly talented legend behind the camera.  Looking past the veneer of Malick’s startlingly attractive and sometimes bewildering artistic hubris, this is a film that’s hard to relate to…or care about. 

  H O M E