wed 13/11/2019

Knight of Cups | reviews, news & interviews

Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups

Terrence Malick's first movie shot in LA is a star-studded disappointment

Bale full? Christian Bale in 'Knight of Cups'

There are times when you sit in the cinema and wish that you didn’t speak English and could just enjoy what you’re seeing. Unfortunately Knight of Cups is one of those times. This is a stunningly beautiful film, the first of Terrence Malick’s films to be (mainly) set in Los Angeles, and it features amazing work by long-term collaborators cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and designer Jack Fisk. But its narrative voiceover and dialogue are excruciating, quasi-parodic and they drag down the stunning images irretrievably.

This is a world of gorgeous women, glossy minimalist architecture, movie-star palaces, infinity pools and empty beaches permanently basking in the light of golden hour. We follow Rick (Christian Bale), a disenchanted screenwriter, through a series of almost hallucinatory encounters with various amours – kooky Imogen Poots, a saintly Vegas stripper (Teresa Palmer) and a model (Freida Pinto). There are lengthy pool parties, orgies in glassy apartments and intimacies in darkened hotel rooms. At times it’s horribly reminiscent of those high-end perfume advertisements that big-name directors and superstars take on to fund their passion projects.

Some of the sex scenes (toe-sucking?) are cringe-worthy when you consider Malick’s age (he's 72), and you can’t help wondering what happened to the stronger roles for women that he was once so good at creating – from Sissy Spacek in Badlands through to Jessica Chastain in To the Wonder. Here the only actress allowed to keep her clothes on is Cate Blanchett (pictured below) as Rick’s ex-wife. She is a doctor ministering to the deformed and the diseased in downtown LA while her ex dives into another doomed relationship, the longest being with Natalie Portman’s cheating wife who finds herself pregnant by Rick. These actresses are playing ciphers, but it’s hard to blame a director’s misogyny when Rick too is a hollow man, a prodigal son without prodigious talent.

Characters are prone to utter lines such as "You don’t want love, you want a love experience” and “Dreams are nice, but you can’t live on them”, or “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t know”. About 20 minutes in, the narrator muses, “How do I begin?” Sadly it’s a question that’s never answered. Malick scholars will be rummaging through their Tarot packs, re-reading the Pilgrim’s Progress (intoned here by John Gielgud) and scrutinising the director’s own biography to parse this tale of an alienated artist trying to find his muse and reconcile with his disapproving father (Brian Dennehy) and his angry brother (Wes Bentley), all of whom are haunted by the violent death of a younger brother.

Bale gives a one-note performance as Rick, the wandering Knight in his black shirt, the same little vein throbbing under his haunted eyes, whether he’s walking on the beach with yet another beautiful muse, driving in a vintage sports car through the city or discussing his work on a Hollywood backlot. As always with Malick, there is a whispery voiceover (Dennehy) and much philosophical musing, delivered not just by Blanchett but also by Armin Mueller Stahl as a priest. The film could have done without the weirdly clumsy earthquake sequence.

On the plus side Malick is the master of the floating camera, the unexpected angle and the eliding edit. It would be wonderful to go on a Knight of Cups location tour, especially if accompanied by its magpie soundtrack – Pärt, Debussy, Grieg and Vaughan Williams vie with contemporary tracks and ambient electronica from Biosphere. If there were a way to switch off the dialogue, leaving the images, music and layered soundscape, Knight of Cups would be wondrous. As it is, it’s a bit of an endurance test.


Brothers (2010). Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal duke it out on the domestic battlefield

Black Swan (2011). OTT, Grand Guignol, horrid, and hilariously enjoyable - it's ballet, up to a point

Natalie Portman in Your HighnessYour Highness (2011). Gross-out comes to medieval England. Here's hoping it bought a return ticket

No Strings Attached (2011). Natalie Portman isn't the only girl to swoon over cute Ashton Kutcher

Thor (2011). 3D graphics and 2D gods: Marvel's version of Norse myth is best when earthbound

Jackie (2017). One brief shining moment that was known as Camelot: how the Kennedy legacy was born


Overleaf: watch the trailer to Knight of Cups

Some of the sex scenes (toe-sucking?) are cringe-worthy when you consider Malick’s age


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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