Knight of Cups
2016, R, 118 min. Directed by Terrence Malick. Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Peter Matthiessen.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., March 18, 2016
At the heart of Terrence Malick’s Delphic new film Knight of Cups (the title, as with the film’s various chapter headings, derives from the cards of a tarot deck – another nod to an oracular source) is a man trying to figure out his life. At the heart of this (and any other review) will be a critic trying to figure out the movie. Depending on the perspective, Knight of Cups is a vessel half-empty or half-full, yet in neither instance will its contents fully slake any thirst.
Christian Bale plays Rick, the film’s title character who’s an L.A. screenwriter trying to find the way forward in both his life and the stalled script he is writing. Verbally, the film conveys itself mostly in murmured voiceovers; what dialogue there is is used sparingly, and very little of it emanates from Rick. Knight of Cups sets us on Rick’s course with its opening intonations from John Bunyan’s Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, though referencing that tome’s full title – The Pilgrim’s Progress From This World to That Which Is to Come; Delivered Under the Similitude of a Dream – gives a better sense of Malick’s formal design.
The guiles of La-la Land have consumed Rick’s soul, leaving him in a trancelike state from which he is trying to rouse. After he’s awakened from literal slumber by an earthquake, snatches of Rick’s life proceed before us, whether as memories or real-time occurrences. Mostly, these vestiges concern his relationships with six subsequent women, and his connections with his domineering father (Dennehy) and surviving brother (Bentley). Yet there are also meetings with agents (played by actual Hollywood brokers), a visit with a tarot reader, a bacchanalian party at a palatial Hollywood estate, and a trip to Vegas (with its ersatz Eiffel Tower, sphinxes, and other spurious glitz). Rick’s wanderings (often in his vintage convertible) take him from the contrasts of L.A.’s Skid Row and its earthquake-rattled concrete jungles and studio-lot fabrications to the ocean, canyons, hills, and Venice Beach, where he (maybe) communes with the sky and the tides or searches for his lost mojo. A visit with a Zen naturalist played by Peter Matthiessen, who died in 2014, gives viewers a sense of how long the notoriously fussy Malick spends with a film in post-production.
Spectacularly shot by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki in a variety of film stocks, Knight of Cups often achieves a visual eloquence that far surpasses the subject’s prosaic life. In the literal sense, we witness a series of women twirling and spinning while half-naked or dressed in billowy outfits. They coo answers to life’s mysteries from behind raccoon eyes or the reach of a stripper pole, except for Cate Blanchett, who plays Rick’s ex-wife, a medical worker who inveighs against his passivity.
Specifics are obviously not Malick’s goal in portraying this pilgrim’s progress from the “City of Destruction” to the “Celestial City” of Bunyan’s novel. There’s no denying the poetry at work in his film, but so much of it is inchoate and fundamentally sexualized that it becomes more of a turn-off than a turn-on. Malick’s Cups is ultimately half-full.
Marjorie Baumgarten, Oct. 7, 2016
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Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick, Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Peter Matthiessen