Knight of Cups (2016)

Final Rating: 8/10

Many directors think through dreams. David Lynch brings out our Freudian subconscious out in front of the firing squad to expose our nightmares. Nicolas Winding Refn mimics the tossing and turning we make in our sleep, whether it be from a ghastly turmoil or a romanticized fantasy. Terence Malick has always fixated on living through our imagined worlds. In fact, there is a line within Knight of Cups that expresses Malick’s dream of existing within dreams. Whether you like Malick’s films or not, you may find yourself seeing the world in a different light once you step out of the theater after having seen one. The world drifts glacially past you and the towers that once loomed around you now seem to curve toward the sun. You try to recollect what you had just witnessed, and like most dreams, you may find it hard to piece everything together. What exactly did those random passersby say? When did so and so get so angry? With muddled dialogue and drowned diegetic sound, you will resort to interpreting images for a good chunk of Malick’s recent films. 

Nightmares within films are exciting, just like any other fearful event is fun. As long as you don’t live these moments yourself, everything is a thrill ride. We don’t want nightmares, but do we want to live inside of dreams that are not our own? If you say yes, Malick could be for you. A quick “no” would match up to your possible reluctance to watch a film of his. If your answer is a definite yes, you may be one of the few that will jump to any Malick film despite the aggregate ratings some of his movies get. They either get massive applause (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life) or they get a bit of a more mixed reaction (The New World, To The Wonder). Knight of Cups is one of those latter films. As a reviewer, I am obligated to giving a fair rating that would benefit all. Seeing as Knight of Cups already has a bunch of disinterested reviews, I shall use this opportunity to gush about one of Malick’s finer films.

As always, Malick looks at America’s well being. We have a fascination with living hard and dying too soon. We strive for riches and sacrifice our own richness. The world revolves around Christian Bale’s character, who is a joyriding playboy that second guesses his existence after an earthquake wakes him up. He scours around the fancy buildings around him and sees slight wreckage. Even the fanciest of things die. He escapes to a psychic and has cards laid out in front of him. He is the Knight of Cups: A man of excess and thirst that cares not of how he spills. That is until now, where he recollects his life and tries to pin point his place in the universe.

Rick (Bale) imagines every important figure in his life as a tarot card, and each person/group of people represents a chapter in the film. He envisions enablers (Imogen Poots, Antonio Banderas and Teresa Palmer that bring life out of him and Isabel Lucas who helps bring life back to him) and he reflects on his hells (Wes Bentley and Brian Dennehy representing his malfunctioning family, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman symbolizing the ruined lives his philandering caused). He notices his desire for change (Freida Pinto is his escape from normalcy) and he sees himself as the root of all of these tangents (through his narration). This is a rich man struggling to see past his arrogance, yet he knows something is worth aiming for. This is a confused brain sparking to work past shallowness, and it’s an effort worth seeking.

Malick’s vision of Rick’s pride being stripped away comes through two gazes: A modern take on Frederico Fellini and the wish to make every shot a moving Tarot card. Emmanuel Lubezki, who recently grabbed his third Oscar win in a row (for The Revenant), has done it again with his God-like cinematography. With The Tree of Life, Lubezki worked with light. In To The Wonder, he grabbed the sky. Here, he works with water. Many shots take place under water or on top of a wave’s residue on a beach’s shore. You see the proverbial cup runneth over, and what spillage it makes leads to life being spawned. There are scarves and garments that flail like fish tails inside of the pool’s water. Drenched bodies look less like soaking dogs and more like carved statues in the sunlight. When you aren’t seeing the collapse of egos in high society, you are seeing the humility of nature’s warm embrace. We’ve done a lot of artificial damage to life, but we can always count on it to help us once again.

These well shot takes on Fellini and card illustrations together make for a living and breathing photoshoot. Knight of Cups screams Condé Nast all over it, whether it be Vogue or W. Malick has captured the free spirited nature of a photoshoot through the lens of a carefree lifestyle. Most of the dialogue that isn’t narration is improvised, including the awkward photographer requests being barked at the models. The movie operates the same way, where directions of the director are almost literally in your ears. You can almost hear Malick telling Bale to stare into a shop window with curiosity. 

Most of Malick’s recent work comprises of living photo journals that speak of life. Knight of Cups is no different. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was certainly mine. With the pulsating music (the inclusion of Burial’s Ashtray Wasp at a strip club didn’t hurt), the mobile photoshoots and the dreamscapes that never escape high-fashion America, Knight of Cups is an experiment at least worth checking out. If you find it a bore, fine. You’ll at least leave with a new perspective of having seen new things in cinema. If I’m in the minority here, so be it. I’ll re-watch it for all of the times people refuse to watch it outright. Then again, that kind of arrogance is what shook up Rick in the first place, and maybe even Malick to an extent. We have yet to see Malick strike gold quite like he did with The Tree of Life when it comes to his new style of ambient consciousness cinema, but Knight of Cups is certainly a fine effort.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.