Ponderous and imponderable, Knight of Cups is, like its protagonist, easily led

Knight of Cups

1 out of 5 stars (1 / 5)


Knight of Cups is a film you could drown in – a vast thematic ocean lapping against the distant shore of some grand, obscure vision. And I don’t have any f**king trunks.

As a director-philosopher (or should that be philosopher-director?), Terrence Malick has always experimented with the medium, but his latest work seems to mark the crossing of a conceptual Rubicon.

Where 2011’s Tree of Life – a genuine masterpiece – encapsulated the brevity and preciousness of human experience by juxtaposing the private grief of an All-American family in ‘50s Texas with the origins of the universe (over almost two and a half hours no less), Knight of Cups eschews such contrivances as plot and character almost entirely.

Following an itinerant screenwriter, Rick (Christian Bale), around Los Angeles and its surrounding environs, the film is directly engaged in a search for meaning and so diligently wades through meaninglessness. Malick’s camera drifts close behind the silently watchful Rick as he makes his way through lavish parties, down skid row, across desert flats, even via the Paramount backlot; switching occasionally to Rick’s POV as if to say, “This is you, you wanderer, you pilgrim.”

Even an earthquake and a minor home invasion can’t shake our nomadic protagonist out of his reverie – or, Heaven forbid, prompt him to pick up a pen. Rick isn’t so much character as camera; the frame through which Malick unfurls this gauzy tapestry.

Less cinema than poetry told through images, Knight of Cups is replete with literary quotations – from The Pilgrim’s Progress, from the apocryphal Hymn of the Pearl – but there is nothing at the center of Malick’s quest; no pearl, no progress, no common nucleus of human experience. There’s experience aplenty – kissing, running into the sea fully clothed, luminous body paint – Spring Break as high art – but no more significance to any of it than a handful of holiday snapshots.

Repetition should lend meaning – a man cycling along a boulevard (different man, different boulevard) –  but these images provide no key in or out. The film’s ending, when it comes, arrives abruptly and without apparent foreshadowing.

Characters pass like ships in the light – Cate Blanchett as Rick’s physician ex-wife; Teresa Palmer as the “High Priestess” stripper; Rick’s bullish father (Brian Dennehy) and volatile brother (Wes Bentley).1 It’s clear by the level of talent – no fewer than four Oscar winners are involved onscreen and off – that Malick’s vision is alluring.

Natalie Portman, who plays ‘Death’ AKA Elizabeth2 and attended Malick’s alma mater, Harvard, must have seen something in the fragmentary pages of script that, to my eye, certainly doesn’t survive . You’d never know of Malick’s practice of “torpedoing” — unexpectedly throwing cast members into scenes to force improvisation — because no real conflict reaches the surface.

Knight of Cups could play on a loop at a modern art installation without much loss.3 The patrons could pause momentarily to glean what they can from Emmanuel Lubezki’s radiant cinematography – bright, pale, and naturally lit, of course4 – or one of Malick’s cryptic snatches of voiceover – the rows of palm trees that line the L.A boulevards tell us, for instance, that anything’s possible – before simply moving on.5

This is perhaps the only film that I wish they’d provided SparkNotes for going in; a handy how-to guide of reference points and symbolism. After almost two hours I almost, perversely, wished it would go on longer, just in the hope that it might all come together in one revelatory burst – alas.

In his review for The New York Times, Richard Brody described Knight of Cups in terms of “the confessional, the inside-Hollywood story, the Dantesque midlife-crisis drama, the religious quest, the romantic struggle, the sexual reverie, the family melodrama” – but, while all of these undercurrents are undoubtedly present, none of them have any hold.

The film is all in the motion, like the breaking of waves; the journey rather than any single arrival or conversation. In this it resembles a 118-minute version of Sean Penn’s present-day perambulations in Tree of Life – reverently wandering between skyscrapers and riding in lifts as though travel were somehow the essence of meaning instead of a necessary transition between point A and point B.6  The film has so little actual structure to it, regardless of what the chapter headings proclaim, that just finding a rhythm to this review has, perhaps obviously, been challenging.7

Dealing with recurring themes in Malick’s work, like the death of a brother, this feels less like cinema than indulgence, therapy even, that, like Woody Allen and his recent travelogues – which are at least entertaining – is difficult to dismiss as navel-gazing simply because the navel in question is so remarkably well composed. Those few impressions that linger – the jaws of a dog, plunging futilely into a pool to recover a lost toy – endure only as curios; detached, adrift from that work that should encompass them.

Perversely, the film Knight of Cups most reminds me of is Batman V Superman – which, despite its subtitle, did justice to nothing and no one.8 Where that was too narrative-driven, this is slight; where that was too dark, all matte and gloss, this is light; where that was categorically shit, this is, well… wank. At least the former has the decency to be bad; this is just ephemeral.9 What films like BVS and KoC10 do, though, is make you appreciate tightly structured, disciplined cinema.11

Knight of Cups is a film for which I’ve seen more than one positive review use words like “indecipherable” and “imponderable”. Now, I can handle a certain amount of poetic obscurity,12 but, forgive me for being old-fashioned, I like my films to make sense.

One of Rick’s myriad lovers – possibly Imogen Poots13 – informs him, “You’re not looking for love. You’re looking for a love experience.” Knight of Cups is not a film but a cinematic experience; one that’ll either sweep you away or leave you marooned, as it did me.

The only reason I can’t dismiss it out of hand is the lingering sense that maybe I missed something, that I was looking too closely (or else not closely enough) and the film’s self-evident transcendence somehow got slipped between my bifocals. What was for me a tedious experience might well prove a transcendent one for you. Try as I did to engage, my latch was clearly broken. 


1 Jason Clarke appears silently in one scene, presumably a victim of Malick’s legendary editing process.

2 Knight of Cups is divided into eight chapter, all named, as the film itself is, for tarot cards. After ‘Death’, fortunately, comes ‘Freedom’ – were it ‘Rebirth’ I might have been obliged to sit through the whole thing again.

3 The film is a canvas onto which you are almost obliged to project your own feelings, your own interpretations. Unfortunately I’ve never had the opportunity to bum around the L.A. party scene with a bevy of beauties on my arm and a seemingly inexhaustible wallet; otherwise I may have found Rick’s evident satisfaction with his lot in life a bit more relatable.

4 What is it with Lubezki and films I don’t quite get on with (even if they are Best Picture winners)? I liked Gravity but didn’t adore it as much as American Hustle; Birdman was fun and superficially profound, but I didn’t even end up reviewing it. As for The Revenant

5 Hanan Townshend’s ethereal string score is certainly relentlessly buoying.

6 You can count the moments of actual “drama” in Knight of Cups on the fingers of one fist. At one point I think Wes Bentley actually throws something. It very nearly startled me awake.

7 Hence the footnotes you are currently reading. The main body is for you; these are more or less just to help me work through any extraneous thoughts.

8 And that’s my last word on it – I promise.

9 Tightly wound films like, say Whiplash, which I haven’t seen since October 2014 and loved so much on first viewing that I’m afraid to open my BluRay copy in case it somehow tarnishes the memory.

10 Malick’s next film, shot back to back with Knight of Cups, is actually called Weightless, but it’s hard to imagine it can be less substantial than this.

11 Okay one more parting shot: BVS is very close to IBS and KoC is a similarly inspired acronym.

12 Carol Morley’s The Falling was one of my favorites of 2015; a film no less ambitious in its own way for its commitment to actually telling a story.

13 It is actually Imogen Poots. She’s called Della in the film – at least that’s what Wikipedia tells me – but for all intents and purposes she’s Imogen Poots. Antonio Banderas is charming and dances. Blanchett brings both fragility and strength in a minor role whose character motivations are provided explicitly via voiceover. Bale just looks about fixedly, occasionally giving a dopy grin or knowing smirk. “Hollow” characters can be fascinating – just see Nightcrawler or Bale himself in American Psycho – but there’s not even any pretense here.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs. Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape. Co-host of The Movie RobCast podcast (formerly Electric Shadows) and member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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