Nov 162015


The Knight of Cups is a dreamer. He is amiable, but easily bored. Artistic and refined, yet in constant need of stimulation. The Knight here is Rick (Christian Bale) a successful, yet unfulfilled player in the movie business. He does not know what he seeks, but whatever it is, he’s having a hard time finding it. Knight of Cups is reviewed after the jump.

Rick is drifting through life. Unable to form proper emotional connections with people, especially women, he finds himself without an anchor, purposeless. He has a strained relationship with his larger than life Father (Brian Dennehy); he loves his troubled younger brother (Wes Bently); and grieves for the brother that no longer lives. There are many women, but few real connections. One woman (played by Imogen Poot) says of Rick, “you don’t want love, you want a love experience”.

His real solace is nature. Nature is true and honest and does not deceive. Natural beauty cannot be replicated, although Hollywood and the wealthy inhabitants of Los Angeles try their best to do so. There is only so much pleasure manufactured beauty and opulence can give him, for ultimately he knows it is hollow. Whenever he can he escapes. He walks through the desert, swims in the ocean, stares at the horizon through the windows of whatever man-made prison he is in.

But Knight of Cups isn’t entirely about Rick; he’s the vessel we experience the world through and his inner demons represent more than just one man. This film is about Los Angeles, it is a poem, a love story, a breakup letter to the beautiful, but punishing city. The film starts with the city fighting – an earthquake rocks the land, and the city reminds its inhabitants that they are there at its mercy. From the beaches to the desert, the strip malls to the Hollywood Hills; and the preened acting élite to those living on the streets – this is a film about all of them.

The people in this film don’t talk much, but when they do it is about either nothing of substance, or the most profound topics imaginable. There isn’t anything in between here, much like there isn’t anything in between in LA. You have it (or are working towards it), or you don’t. The city, especially the Hollywood, is not forgiving of those unable or unwilling to participate in its games.

Malick is all about the internal conflict here (even more so than with Tree of Life and To The Wonder), there is very little dialogue and when there is, it’s not exactly full conversations. It’s not the dialogue that tells the story here, it’s the camera. Emmanuel Lubezki (Birdman, Gravity, Children of Men). I didn’t think I could love Lubezki more than I already did, but I was wrong.

The fluidity with which he shoots this film is astounding. He doesn’t seem to be restricted by equipment, nor is he hindered by being free. In some of the most stunning scenes the camera moves as if it were the wind, the sea, the heartbeat. Waves roll into the beach and the camera goes under water and comes up again. I held my breath, I felt like I was submerged. In the aforementioned earthquake scene, the shot is if it is from the perspective of the earth itself, watching the pathetic and helpless people stumble and fall.

The light is another distinguishing feature of this film, with many scenes shot during sunrise and sunset. The desert is particularly beautiful, with the contrast between the stark, dry landscape and the deep blues of the sky simply stunning. Lubezki shot the film on 35mm, 65mm and various forms of digital. The result is a film that is rich and textured.

Regular Malick composer, New Zealander Hanan Townshend scores again, with a subtle, yet effective score.

It was good to see Christian Bale out of the Batsuit and putting his talents to good use. While he has little to say, he conveys a lot through his body language and facial expressions. The list of female actors on this film is longer than it probably should be, but I particularly liked Cate Blanchett and Imogen Poots, the latter almost unrecognisable as a brunette with extremely thick black eyeliner. While there is no doubt that the women are treated as sexual objects in moments of this film, Lubzeki just as often films them in such a gentle way, emphasising their beauty, but not in a leering manner. Nudity doesn’t always equal sex.

Knight of Cups is LA porn and Lubezki is the king – excess, wealth, emptiness and beauty. That’s my take on Knight of Cups, but who knows if that’s anything near what Malick intended it to be. All I know is images from this film will dancing through my head for some time to come.
By Sam McCosh

The Facts

Director: Terrence Malick
Writer(s): Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Wes Bentley
Runtime: 118 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: November 12 2015

  4 Responses to “Knight of Cups”

  1. Thanks Mr McCosh. Your words helped me to get a firmer grip on what I just watched. All I knew was that it was a gorgeous experience, like a poignant dream that happened to include Natalie Portman. And like a dream, there wasn’t a plot to it, just images and evoked feelings, some of them really strong, especially those involving his dad. I hope when it comes here to America, in March I suppose, that moviegoers have an idea beforehand that it’s basically a dream to be experienced, not the usual film with a plot to resolve.

    • Thanks for your comment Chris (although I am ‘Ms’ rather than ‘Mr’). You’re right in saying it is far more life a dream than a film with a traditional plot. It’s the sort of film that is not going to work for many people, but if you can go for the ride it is quite an experience.

      • Oops. I’m sorry. I forgot about the possibility of “Sam” meaning Samantha.
        As the film progressed I guess I realized that there might not be a standard resolution but still anticipated some kind of change in Rick because of his experiences. But like you said, we experienced things through him, so maybe it’s more appropriate to think about how I was changed by the experiences. Now I’m tempted to watch it again, or rather _experience_ it again. It really seems to grow on me as the realization of what the heck I saw settles in more. I liked that it was so dreamy, especially the fragmented moments of his childhood, flashes strung together like distant memories.
        You’re right that it won’t work for many people. If the distributors are smart they’ll play it in venues that show the artsy “Fox Searchlight” and “Sony Pictures Classics”-type films and somehow make it clearer in previews that it’s definitely not in the standard format of a film story.

        • No problem. I do wonder how the film will change on rewatch, especially if you’re emotional state is different. I’ll be buying it on blu-ray when it comes out for sure!