Nothing in a Terrence Malick film is an accident. The famously meticulous director is not one to be unaware of the reception of his creations. Understanding his detailed approach to film is the best way to go into any of his films, however understanding a finicky director does not necessarily mean that he makes good films. Knight of Cups is detailed and crafted with an immense amount of care, but it is a difficult film to endure.
To summarize the film’s plot, or lack thereof, would be a disservice to the film itself. Knight of Cups does not exist to tell or story or explain a character’s evolution into a slightly changed person, rather it is a visual reflection on a man’s existence in Los Angeles and along a bunch of beaches.
Starring as the main, or at least the most central, character is Christian Bale. Rick works in Hollywood, in some film making capacity, though that is never specified. In fact, nothing in the film is ever specified. Instead we float around in Rick’s world, mostly in relation to his encounters with beautiful women. We can see that he was once happy with Cate Blanchett before that went bad. He had a fun and brief time with Freida Pinto, and Teresa Palmer, and at one point became emotionally attached to Natalie Portman. The chronology of these relationships is unclear, and saying that certain vignettes were flashbacks would insinuate that there was a well-established present to divert from.
What does matter in Knight of Cups is the artistry of the film itself. The camera, often with a fisheye lens, wanders around each scene, regularly ignoring or only giving cursory glances to the actors in the room. The audience is shoved up close into Rick’s face and then pointed out the window, voyeuristically looking next into his neighbor’s windows. The wandering frame is alienating and creates a detachment between the audience and the characters. The essentially inaudible diegetic dialogue is layered with prominent voice-overs that do not always relate to the scene on screen. The overall detachment is sometimes reflected in Rick’s disinterest with his own surroundings. This is clearly a sign of Malick’s intention and hands-on creation of a visual language.
The overall effect of this stylized film has the possibility to either endear or estrange the audience. For those who love art house cinema, and feel no need to have a compelling story, they will adore the film’s non-traditional structure. The visuals in the film can be beautiful and for those who feel satisfied at the theater by something that merely looks pretty will leave happy. For anyone who is expecting a plot, an emotional connection to complicated characters, or some semblance of motivation, they will be frustrated by Knight of Cups. I could see a viewer thinking that the film was meaningless shots of Rick on the beach, lightly sprinkled with a few interactions with other characters, but you cannot even hear what they are saying. Both experiences are equally valid.
My appreciation falls between these two appraisals. I love unstructured films that push the boundaries of cinema and story. I think these films are important, and I am appreciative of their existence. But, Knight of Cups is not easy or enjoyable to watch. The tempo of the film, even with the voice
overs and framing, drags at points. Also, yet another film with a god-like central male character is little tedious. I have no reason to believe that Rick is God’s gift to women, and I thought Malick would be beyond this indulgence in male fantasy. But then again, given Malick’s self-awareness as a filmmaker, that masturbatory indulgence may be a conscious statement on filmmaking in general.
I have never seen so many people walking out of a film, than I saw at Knight of Cups. I am glad that I stayed seated, and I did enjoy the film as an artistic exercise, but that is by no means a ringing endorsement.
Director: Terrence Malick
Film Length: 118 minutes
Release Date: March 11, 2016
Distributor: Broad Green Pictures