Knight of Cups (2015)

knight12016.17: Knight of Cups (Blu-ray)

I’m a big fan of Terrence Malick’s films- The Thin Red Line is one of my very favourite films, I love Days of Heaven (if only someone would release Criterion’s Blu-ray on Region B) and The Tree of Life. However, anybody who recalls my review of To The Wonder a few years back will remember my growing doubts about Malick and his ever-increasingly poetic, free-of-narrative style of movie making. His films have always been lyrical and gorgeous to look at and listen to, feasts for the senses that are beautifully lensed and accompanied by wonderful soundtracks. Increasingly extraordinary films that you walk away from not entirely sure what the films were even about. Tree of Life was a fascinating film with amazing sequences fashioned from jaw-dropping visuals and music – a History Of The World section with Douglas Trumbull effects was worth the price of admission alone, but what the rest of the film was actually about (growing up in a dysfunctional family, father and son relationships, life and death, the loss of innocence, humanity versus the randomness of Nature) was open to some debate. What you get out of a Malick film is always proportionate to what you are willing to put into it- these aren’t passive experiences. But with To The Wonder Malick was pushing it too far, the narrative-free form feeling too random, the vagueness slipping into tedium, the directionless acting irritating. I’ve only seen it once.

So I approached Knight of Cups with some caution. I have to say, I needn’t have worried, it’s a beautiful, brilliant movie (I’ll add the cautionary disclaimer ‘if you like Malick’, as if you dislike his films his Knight of Cups will only reinforce that view). As soon as this film ended I could have sat down and watched it again. I didn’t connect at all with To The Wonder, but Knight of Cups touched me, it spoke to me- I ‘got’ it. It’s brilliant.

It doesn’t, of course, have a plot.  Rick (Christian Bale) is a Hollywood screenwriter and the toast of Hollywood (the irony of the protagonist being the one thing a Malick film doesn’t need isn’t lost on me). He’s the typical guy who has got it all and wonders why he bothered, what its all for- he’s feeling old before his time. He represents an extreme example of all of us struggling to find meaning in their lives; he has beautiful women, gets invited to parties full of the rich and famous… but he’s increasingly lost and feeling empty inside, a tortured soul. The brighter his life, the duller it seems.

knight3In a series of unscripted vignettes we see him at parties, nightclubs, in luxurious hotels and nightclubs, surrounded by hangers-on and superstars. We see his relationships with women. His ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchette) debates with him why their marriage failed, whilst holding back from him her sadness that he was the love of her life. There’s flings with Helen (Frieda Pinto), Della (Imogen Poots) and Karen (Teresa Palmer), followed by a serious but ill-fated relationship with a married woman (Natalie Portman). His difficult relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and mentally unravelling father (Brian Dennehy) run throughout all of them. Rick is lost in the wilderness, a wilderness of rocky canyons and gleaming hotel rooms and neon-drenched cities and luxury mansions and sun-drenched beaches. Sometimes its like looking at life on another planet. Its broken people in a broken world.


Naturally Knight of Cups follows the traditions of Malick film-making. Beautiful imagery that may or may not have meaning, internal monologues voiced by the characters we see and other speeches that are from sources unknown that may or not be commenting on what we are seeing. There is no resolution, other than whatever the viewer takes away from it. We seem to leave Rick as lost and forlorn as ever. But maybe there is hope; who knows? You may sympathise with him or you may hate him. Is he genuinely a tortured soul on an existential journey through modern California or just a needy yank suffering from depression?

The imagery, lensed by frequent Malick collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, is always beautiful, often breathtaking in framing and execution. You could turn down the soundtrack and just watch the images as a modern-day update of Koyaanisqatsi, but the soundtrack itself, another collection of classical pieces and original score typical of Malick’s films, is a marvel in itself. As a whole I think it works extraordinarily well. Anyone who enjoyed The Tree of Life should give this film a chance. Watch it on the biggest screen you can as loud as you can.

I imported the German Blu-ray which is UK-friendly with English menus etc. I guess the theatrical release here in May will be very limited which is why I reluctantly went the import route, our own disc release no doubt still months away. You never know, maybe a cinema near me will screen the film; after To The Wonder I wouldn’t have risked it but having now seen Knight of Cups, I’d be keen to see it on a big screen if given the opportunity. God only knows how films like this get financed and made but thank God they do. I loved it.

What next, Mr Malick?


To the Wonder (2012)

2thewondrWith To the Wonder, Terrence Malick pushes everything to the limit- frankly, he seems hell-bent on testing the faith of his sincerest admirers/fans, threatening to make even the most faithful of us bored to tears. It’s all the best and very worst of him wrapped up into one strange, beautiful, but rather detached, even boring film. Its a further experiment in his cinematic  tone poems, in which he edits several hours of footage into two hours of ambient, fragmentary passages with carefully selected (mostly classical) music.

The plot – well, the marketing people will have you believe there is a plot, and furthermore that it’s a love story: Neil (a horribly wasted Ben Affleck) after a romance in Europe, returns to America with single mother Marina (Olga Kurylenko, who is radiant throughout) and her child. Marina has to return to Europe as the relationship fractures, Neil finding a new romance with an old flame of his youth, Jane (Rachel McAdams).  To be honest, there isn’t much of a story at all, and much of what I have just said can hardly be gleaned from just watching the movie. It’s mostly what the marketing people are telling us happens, because, quite frankly, the film itself hardly bothers to tell the viewer even that.  Marin leaves, Jane turns up. Marina returns, Jane disappears. Neil is passive throughout, as if unsure what he or the director wants. None of it is really explained, there is hardly any dialogue or exposition at all. Apparently random, albeit artistic, vignettes pass before us, of characters staring at each other, or away from each other. Walking towards each other, or walking away from each other. Embracing, fighting. Shopping. They hardly speak. Voice-overs and mutterings  litter the sound-scape so quietly I’m not even sure we are meant to hear them, but its mostly not in English anyway, so subtitles often help us out. I guess that’s the point; like in all Malick’s work, everything is subjective, it’s up to the viewer to decide what has happened. The film is almost like a mirror, shouting at us what do you see? What is going on?

Which is all very well and good when there is a story being told at the same time, from which we can glean/decide subjective meaning, however arbitrary,  from the events portrayed. We knew The Thin Red Line was a war movie, even though subjectively we know its really about nature, our place in it, how we bring arbitrary values of  good and evil to it. We knew that Tree of Life was telling the story of a family, of small human transient lives put into perspective against the grandest panorama of Creation, of The Beginning and The End.  So while that film has meanings we ourselves give it, it was still telling a story.  To the Wonder doesn’t really have that, its all rather aimless and irritating, as aimless as Javier Bardem’s pointless Father Quintana sullenly moping around his congregation muttering vaguely about love and Christ. Surely Malick has pushed his beautiful cinematic tone-poems as far as they can go.