It’s quite odd to note that even though we’re only half way through it, the 2010s have proven to be Terrence Malick’s most prolific decade yet, and he’s got another couple of films in the pipeline. Still, in the small group of films he’s made since his 1998 comeback The Thin Red Line he’s established a style so distinct that he could be accused of reaching self-parodic levels with his previous film, 2013’s To the Wonder.
Nothing much has changed on that front with Knight of Cups, he still makes a film that feels like an experimental collage of beautiful images, accompanied by near-constant classical music and cryptic, philosophical voice-overs. Those put-off by To the Wonder are unlikely to find themselves re-converted. As similar as the style is, Knight of Cups does find Malick applying it to a very different setting.
His recent films have basked in the beauty of the natural world, primarily taking place in outdoor, rural environments. Knight of Cups flips this right over, being set almost exclusively in the modern urban sprawl of present day Los Angeles. There’s less obvious beauty to be found filming streets, house parties and studio lots but Malick’s regular camera-wizard Emmanuel Lubezki still does a stunning job photographing the city in a captivating manner rarely seen.
Story seems to be a secondary concern for Malick and that remains the case with Knight of Cups. The title derives from a Tarot card, and the names of different Tarot cards are displayed on screen at various points, often to link them to the introduction of a new character. Personally, I know very little about Tarot so these held next-to-no meaning, but may well do for those better versed than I. The story of the Knight of Cups, which I suppose our main character is intended to represent, is briefly read out via voice-over at the start, but this went over my head.
We follow a character called Rick (Christian Bale), though I don’t think his name is ever spoken and I had to look it up in order to write this review. He appears to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter who’s living a wild, decadent life full of parties, alcohol and women. We don’t learn much of his career; he obviously has money and is in demand, but otherwise seems distant and unsatisfied with life. As the film progresses, we meet his less-successful younger brother (Wes Bentley) and his father (Brian Dennehy). The tension between them is high, exacerbated by a recent family tragedy.
The main focus for Rick appears to be the many women who come in and out of his life. There’s memorably a model (Freida Pinto) who’s introduced during a raunchy photoshoot that’s perhaps the most surprisingly un-Malick-like moment, and later an Australian stripper (Teresa Palmer) who he strikes up a conversation with whilst she’s performing for him. His connections with women like these do not seem to run too deeply though, unlike that with his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett). Blanchett appears in flashbacks and seems to still haunt Rick’s memories (not that she’s dead, just divorced).
For such a big star, who’s prominently advertised next to Bale on the poster, Blanchett has very little to do in the movie, and the same can be said for the other top-billed actress; Natalie Portman. Portman plays a woman with whom Rick enters into a relationship later in the film, who he appears to have deeper feelings for than any of his previous flings since his wife left. It’s initially a little distracting when Portman appears as it’s so far in (maybe 90 minutes) that I’d forgotten that she was in this film too, but again she’s not there for long.
Malick’s method of filmmaking – filming hours upon hours of footage and then editing it down to feature length – is well known enough now that’s it’s not surprising to learn that Knight of Cups spent two years in post-production. Actors famously sign on to work with him not knowing if they’ll even appear at all in the final cut. In that vein, there are a lot of recognizable actors who pop up in Knight of Cups for brief moments, and a couple who feel more like cameos.
One notable such appearance comes from Antonio Banderas, as an older actor throwing a lavish party. The voice-over switches to him for this scene too. His guests feature a large number of familiar faces including Jason Clarke, Joe Manganiello, Nick Kroll and Jo Lo Truglio, none of whom I think have a single line of dialogue. It can be quite amusing to see who’s going to show up for a second here and there, much like in The Thin Red Line, yet also can’t help but feel a little wasteful, casting well-known, talented actors and then reduce them to being essentially extras in the film. Apparently Nick Offerman was in this at some point too but I don’t recall seeing him. It’s quite something to think that, given all the good actors Malick had to work with, the one who probably has the second most screen time is Wes Bentley.
I also got very little from the frequent voice-overs Malick employs, often during scenes with dialogue. To be honest I began paying less attention to them as the film progressed and was far more taken in by the photography. I did find Knight of Cups to be an engaging experience throughout, but that was due to the images, some of which, for example a dog diving into a night pool in slow motion, prove particularly memorable, and the music. The score combines numerous existing works, in particular Wojciech Kilar’s ‘Exodus’ to good effect.
While I wasn’t bored by Knight of Cups, and could recant the basic story afterwards, I didn’t see a great deal to the film below the surface level imagery. I would struggle to tell you what Malick’s deeper intentions were after just one viewing. I did think it a slight improvement over To the Wonder, but it does seem to cement that this sort of impressionistic filmmaking is what Malick is sticking to now. I have to wonder if he’s so committed to this style now, will he ever make something to match the straight-forward brilliance of Badlands again?