Film Review: Knight of Cups

by Chad Liffmann on March 11, 2016

Malick’s stream of consciousness goes to Hollywood.

Christian Bale is a Hollywood Knight...of cups.

Christian Bale is a Hollywood Knight…of cups.

For the most part, you’re either a fan of Terrence Malick or you’re not. There isn’t a whole lot of middle ground, considering the polarizing style of his films — they’re sort of poetic streams of consciousness in the form of montages and existential voice-overs. His early masterpieces, like Days of Heaven and Badlands (and even The Thin Red Line) paved the way for, arguably, his magnum opus, The Tree of Life. Since then he’s delivered hit-or-miss cinematic experiences that are stories built upon the interpretation of the collection of images on the screen. Not to say that Malick doesn’t have a complete understanding grasp of his own products, but it wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think he may not, and purposefully so. And now there’s Knight of Cups, Malick’s newest existential experience. This time, the experience is centered around one man’s journey in Hollywood, his success and failure, of the rich and poor around him, his dreams and his fate, and with a central heartbeat to it all in the form of tarot cards. What’s not to like!? Well, there’s a lot that feels pretentious and aimless, and accidentally so. But there’s also a lot in Knight of Cups that overflows with meaning and beauty, and those moments make KoC just rewarding enough to enjoy watching.

One aspect of KoC that I didn’t care for was that the dialogue seemed more pretentious than usual, and the acting felt forced at times. The actors carried themselves like they knew they were acting in a Malick film, which is a compliment and an annoyance simultaneously. The only one who breaks from that mold is Cate Blanchett, who comes off as the most natural character in the film. The other women – Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots, and Freida Pinto – as well as the main character, Christian Bale, all seem to enjoy running their hands along objects and walls and turning their heads to look behind them at every opportunity. I guess perhaps this type of behavior fits Malick’s aim to depict the dichotomy of natural falseness that runs rampant throughout Hollywood. Or maybe that’s just what actors do when they aren’t given specific direction. Or both.

Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is, again, astounding. The guy just can’t do no wrong these days, having won three cinematography Oscars in a row! The camera is practically a character itself in Malick films, and Knight of Cups is no different. We get uncomfortably close when characters are searching themselves for answers, and back away when they need space, yet thanks to the camera we are always present for these beautiful moments.

The best way to experience a Terrence Malick film is in the comfort of your own home, or at least in a place where you can ignore all distractions. I had a heavy breather sitting next to me in the theater, and it prevented me from letting myself get 100% sucked into Malick’s vision. His films can be deeply personal and very moving, so it’s important to find a place you can feel comfortable “letting go”. With that in mind, not all of his films have the emotionally engrossing effect that he’s well-known for. Knight of Cups excels from a visual standpoint, but falls a bit short from a storytelling standpoint. There are a few scenes, one involving a Hollywood party at a celebrity’s mansion, that rank high on the long list of Malick’s most impactful moments. The mansion scene, in particular, may be the most complex critique of Hollywood embellishment I’ve ever seen. Most of the remaining minutes of Knight of Cups are still a visual feast, but they aren’t as resonant as you walk away from the overall experience.

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Knight of Cups is in theaters Friday, March 11th.

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