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Reviewed by:
  • Knight of Cups dir. by Terrence Malick
  • Michael C. Reiff
Knight of Cups (2015)
Directed by Terrence Malick
Produced by Dogwood Films
Distributed by Broad Green Pictures
118 minutes

Since his relatively humble beginnings with 1973’s Badlands, Terrence Malick’s cinema has become evermore cosmic, spiritual and transcendent in scope and content. His style has evolved from American New Wave rustic to angelic high-definition. But through all of the sun dappled wheat fields, murmured narration and soul-enlivening portraits of beauty, a few key themes have emerged. One, in particular, seems applicable to his overall filmography in general, and his recent and rapid spate of films in particular (he has now released three films in five years, a breakneck pace compared to the decades long pauses between earlier films.) A submerged destructiveness in the American spirit has been burbling within and around the surface of Malick films since Badlands. And while his recent films – The Tree Of Life, To The Wonder and now Knight Of Cups, are about as diametrically opposite to the multiplex action delirium many see as the hallmark of the American Hollywood Movie, Malick seems focused lately on the implosive nature of the American spirit, the reductive essence inherent in its lived nature.

This domineering culture is only overcome by the ethereal and cosmic grace of the afterlife in The Tree Of Life. A lush, ebullient European romance falls to pieces in the homogenized commercial developments of the Midwestern U.S. in To The Wonder. In the same film, a priest wanders wastelands of the under trodden, the prisoners and parishioners he tends to, providing succor to America’s forgotten. Both films remain true to Malick’s uplifting belief in the salvation of nature, however, with verdant backdrops providing a visual and emotional refuge from the quiet human calamities unfolding in the narrative foreground. In 2016’s Knight of Cups, even this ancillary sanctuary is lost. Transposing his cinematic operatics to the urban landscape of Hollywood and Las Vegas, Knight of Cups gives us Malick’s most spiritually nihilistic warning, not so much a nightmarish screed as Bret Easton Ellis would give us, but a bleak recognition of the American myth writ commercial. The film presents both new avenues and blind alleys for [End Page 84] Malick, as the film is both startlingly and refreshingly divergent from his recent work, and also narratively unformed and, in the end, unfulfilling.

Christian Bale is at the center of this portrait of dour decadence. Bale plays a screenwriter in Hollywood, popular on the social circuit, though rarely seen working on actual scripts. At first, one might think his character – Rick – is at the center of a complex web of characters. Brian Dennehy plays his thespian father and Wes Bentley plays his vagabond brother, and there seems to be a legacy of family strife and betrayal in their scenes. Cate Blanchett plays a former wife and Natalie Portman plays a new lover (among many other women who flit, flirt and flounce across the screen), women who project, if not portray, romantic yearning and rejection.

Yet, while all of these characters may indeed interact with Rick, Bale’s performance, and Malick and Lubezki camera, position him without the world he inhabits, as those he is a ghost, a zeitgeist. Indeed, one of the mot frustrating elements of the film is that while motifs of alienation and cultural estrangement fit neatly with Malick’s spare and otherworldly images, Rick’s performance is both too present (Bale is in almost every scene of the film), yet not rooted enough in any sort of commitment to the characters, events or situations he is presented in. He is, instead, fashioned as an ethereal spirit of the times, a figure floating through debauchery and crisis, observing placidly, occasionally engaged by other spirit-lake waifs and demons.

Indeed, while the rest of the cast is filled with Malick-ean cameos from actors like Jason Clark, Clifton Collins Jr. and Armin Mueller-Stahl, the characters Rick actually interacts with seem more spiritually and mythological referential, from a scripture-spouting pimp in Las Vegas, to a Mephistophelian Antonio Banderas who temps and diverts...


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pp. 84-86
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