Knight of Cups

knight of cups 2015

Knight of Cups [2015], auteur Terrence Malick’s seventh feature-length film, follows a young screenwriter named Rick (played by Christian Bale) in his search for human connection in the immaculate wastes of Southern California. 

Style rather than substance. Terrence Malick’s filmmaking is as divisive as it is unique, and Knight of Cups is not going to win over any of his detractors. Breathy voiceovers, repetitive landscape shots, and characters who spend most of their time on screen staring blankly into the middle distance are Malick’s building blocks. When a scene works, it does so because a particular mixture of non-sequitur dialogue, atmospheric music, and gorgeous location shooting produces a strong tone or emotion. Unfortunately, the majority of the scenes in Knight of Cups fail to achieve this, resulting in a movie that is mostly comprised of repetitious episodes in which Rick hooks up with a beautiful woman who then disappears without any discernible reason or effect on the characters or story.

Reader's Guide required. Like Tree of Life before it, Knight of Cups follows a rich structure that imparts more meaning than anything said or done by the characters. Here, the guiding heuristics are the eponymous allegory about a knight who forgets his quest as well as a series of titles taken from tarot cards that introduce each of the film’s eight chapters. While not a lot happens during the film’s runtime, the inclusion of these outside references gives the viewer the key to unlocking a deeper meaning. Whether that meaning is worth unlocking is another question entirely, but suffice it to say that the same message could have been conveyed equally if not more effectively without relying exclusively on such an abstract device.

Omphaloskepsis-o-rama. Knight of Cups is Malick’s most personal film to date, and as a result comes across as pettier than those before it. Malick’s previous films succeeded partly because they took particular incidents and universalized them, often pitting individual human experiences against the natural world or the vicissitudes of history in order to achieve a novel perspective. Yet Malick only flirts with these larger connections in Knight of Cups; here, he is more interested in vividly depicting the debauchery of a Hollywood party or the surreality of an earthquake than he is in framing these experiences as part of a larger whole. This tendency would be fine if Malick had made a film that contained anything resembling character development or drama, but, since at this late stage of his career he does not deign to burden his movies with such petty details, Knight of Cups ends up feeling like a series of journal entries from around the time Malick’s first wife left him put to screen with little thought as to their sequence or relevance.

Despite having solid cinematography and a couple of memorable scenes, Knight of Cups ends up being far less than the sum of its barebones parts.