Review: Malick celebrates the art of being a dreamer in Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups breathes its own life

Review by Daniel Dercksen (March 1, 2016)

With Knight of Cups, Terrence Malick is very much a storymaker in search of meaning, and through his journey of finding an answer to the essence of life, love and art, he allows us to reconnect with our own personal journey into ourselves and our place in this world.


Malick explores the excess of nothingness and the extreme of everything, where complete silence and feverish chaos form an incongruous symphony of emotions in this story of a lonely comedy writer Rick (Christian Bale) living in present-day Santa Monica who longs for something other, something beyond the life he knows, without knowing quite what it is, or how to go about finding it.

His father (Brian Dennehy), bears a sense of guilt for his brother’s death, and he tries to get his surviving brother (Wes Bentley) back on his feet.

Rick seeks distraction in the company of women: Della (Imogen Poots); Nancy (Cate Blanchett), a physician he was once married to; a model named Helen (Freida Pinto); Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a woman he made pregnant; A stripper named Karen (Teresa Palmer); and a young woman who helps him to see his way forward, Isabel (Isabel Lucas).

Women seem to know more than he does. They bring him closer to the heart of things, closer to the mystery. The highs haven’t added up. The parties, the dalliances, the career none has satisfied. And still each woman, each man he’s met through the course of his life has served him in some way as a guide, a messenger.

The story in Knight of Cups is loosely inspired by and at times quotes directly from both the 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the passage Hymn of the Pearl from the Acts of Thomas.

The film is divided into eight chapters, plus a prologue, each loosely based around the central character Rick’s relationship with somebody in his life. Every chapter is named after a tarot card (as is the title of the film), except for the final chapter Freedom: The Moon – Della (Imogen Poots), a rebellious young woman; The Hanged Man – His brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and father Joseph (Brian Dennehy); The Hermit – Tonio (Antonio Banderas), an amoral playboy; Judgement – His physician ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett);  The Sun – Helen (Freida Pinto), a serene model;  The High Priestess – Karen (Teresa Palmer), a spirited, playful stripper; Death – Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a woman he wronged in the past; and Freedom – Isabel (Isabel Lucas), an innocent who helps him see a way forward.

Beauty cradles Malick’s soulful and existential  exploration

It is like taking a walk through the serenity of a the Karoo, contemplating the allure of its divine inspiration and stillness, and then plunge into the madness of peak traffic in a big city, bombarded by the chaos unleashed by the rat race.

Beauty cradles Malick’s soulful and existential  exploration; even when an earthquake  strikes, it is the exquisiteness of water flowing across the concrete surface of a pavement that brings Rick to his knees and forces him to touch it, allowing the tranquility to obliterate his fear.

It’s the ethereal wonder that mesmerizes as we follow Rick and the other characters on their respective journeys, constantly yearning to find balance in their relationships and personal conflicts.

Through this they utter a few meaningless words to each other, but speak directly to us through hypnotic and whispered voice over narration, welcoming us into their mindscapes as they question how others perceive them, and reevaluate their existence.

Knight of Cups

Terrence Frederick Malick is an American film director, screenwriter, and producer. In a career spanning over four decades he has directed seven feature films. He made his directorial debut with the drama Badlands in 1973. After the release of his second film, the 1978 drama Days of Heaven, Malick released no film work for twenty years, until the 1998 war drama The Thin Red Line. He is known for maintaining a low-key lifestyle. Malick has received consistent praise for his work and has been regarded as one of the greatest living filmmakers. He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director for The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life, and the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Thin Red Line, as well as winning the Golden Bear at the 49th Berlin International Film Festival for The Thin Red Line, the Palme d’Or at the 64th Cannes Film Festival for The Tree of Life, and the SIGNIS Award at the 69th Venice International Film Festival for To the Wonder. Terrence Malick was born in Ottawa, Illinois, or Waco, Texas.(one of the settings of his film The Tree of Life.) Malick studied philosophy under Stanley Cavell at Harvard University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1965. He went on to Magdalen College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. After a disagreement with his tutor, Gilbert Ryle, over his thesis on the concept of world in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, Malick left Oxford without a doctorate. In 1969, Northwestern University Press published Malick’s translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes as The Essence of Reasons. Returning to the United States, Malick taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology while freelancing as a journalist. Malick started his film career after earning an MFA from the AFI Conservatory in 1969, directing the short film “Lanton Mills”. At the AFI, he established contacts with people such as Jack Nicholson, longtime collaborator Jack Fisk, and agent Mike Medavoy, who procured for Malick freelance work revising scripts. He is credited with the screenplay for Pocket Money (1972), and he wrote an early draft of Dirty Harry (1971). After one of his screenplays, Deadhead Miles, was made into what Paramount Pictures felt to be an unreleasable film, Malick decided to direct his own scripts.

Malick keeps this vibrant visual and verbal dialogue between the characters and the audience alive through inspirational moments of pure ecstasy, underscored emotionally by Hanan Townshend music, the sounds of nature, or even utter silence, respectfully celebrating the harmony that exists between the soul and the body.

It’s amazing how Malick liberates Townshend as an artist,  who is equally fascinated by the relationship between music and visual art specific to film –Townshend was a music licensee on Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning film The Tree Of Life; this is where he received his first significant recognition. Since then, Townshend has continued composing for many feature films, including working as the composer on Malick’s recent film To The Wonder.

Townshend’s music reflects the broad background of inspiration from which he draws – the poetic soundscapes of his Texas (where Malick was also born), the eager patterns of popular music, and the refinement of classical training and studies in art composition. Because of this, he has a penchant for approaching film music from a less conventional perspective and producing clever, memorable pieces that support just as much the picturesque as they do the auditory experience.

Knight of Cups’ spiritual meditation forms the next chapter of A New World, Tree Of Life and To The Wonder.

Tree Of Life unfolded symphonically, like a piece of music divided into movements, or the limbs of a towering tree, tracing the evolution of a single life – that of a man who tries to square a series of lingering questions about his father’s anger, his mother’s love, his brother’s death, and his own struggles with meaning and faith.

To the Wonder was a compelling poetic exploration of love, the demise of humanity and spiritual and physical infidelity.

With A New World we gracefully discovered new territories and cultures, with Tree of Life Malick took us into the heart of creation and the soul of a family, and with To The Wonder he gave us an exceptional opportunity to scrutinize different aspects of love, being loved, intimacy and the sanctimony of human relationships and between us and the world we live in.

Knight of Cups 3

Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale

With Knight of Cups Malick evolves as an artist, never allowing the narrative to dictate or manipulate his artistry, or impede its infinite magnitude.

Although there is a story imbedded in a story told to Rick by his father – that of a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep – and we follow Rick’s journey to fulfillment, Knight of Cups is not about the story, but about the emotions that flow out of the interaction between characters, allowing us to feel the emotion, rather than someone telling us how we should react.

Knight Of Cups is definitely not your usual cinematic experience; this is film that dares to slice the human condition open and allows emotions to bleed into our own existence.

It’s incredible to experience the end result of the intimate and unusual working relationship Malick has with his actors.

He allows his actors to become completely vulnerable by being present in the moment of each thought and action, like blindfolded children meandering through an enchanted forest.

This unique approach to filmmaking creates an honesty that connects with our own reality; we view film through the filter of our own experiences, and get lost in its maze of hypnotic allusions.

When questions surface like: ‘’Am I dreaming?’’ or ‘ ’What am I searching for?’’, you often wonder whether or not is is yourself asking the question, or the characters?

In a sense, we become the film and part of its fictional reality, and the film merely becomes a projection of our own existence.

Meaning becomes meaningless when the realization occurs that everything is about the now, about how we should live in the present and make the most of our lives and those who enter our arena of humanity.

Malick profoundly reveals how we as individuals matter in the bigger scheme of things, and that it is sometimes better to simply enjoy life for what it is, and try and suffocate it with unnecessary reason.

In Knight of Cups, Bale is very much grounded in an austere reality, dressed immaculately in black like a priest ready to take confession; it is the world that surrounds him that becomes ridiculous – a woman wearing a tutu and a unicycle cycling up the road, a Mary Antoinette like character wandering through the deserted streets of a film set, strippers seductively seducing their amorous admirers, children playing only as children can, traffic battling traffic, or even a dog desperately trying to grab hold of a ball doddering in a pool.

It’s this frenetic and sometimes surreal imagery of a world spinning out of control – with editors Geoffrey Richman, Keith Fraase, and A.J Edwards skillfully fusing Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography – that forces Knight Of Cups to come to a standstill, wrapped in a protective celluloid cocoon.


Natalie Portman

After watching Knight of Cups you feel cleansed of commercialism, as Malick purges the conventions and notions of how film should be told and in a way, continue to reinvent himself as a creative being.

The artist and artisan enter a new realm of exploration, experimenting with endless new inspired possibilities, just like the cavemen carved out their dreams on a rock to preserve their imaginings.

Film is ultimately an art that communicates thoughts and ideas through created imagery and sound.

Malick is indeed a ‘Knight of Cups’ and ‘Prince of Dreams’, constantly creating new ways of communicating, celebrating the gift of creation, and cherishing the talent for expressing the kingdoms of make-believe and the imagination.

He makes it clear that anything is possible if you dare to dream, and that nothing is impossible if you ignite your imagination.

It is this definitive freedom that allows a film like Knight of Cups to breathe its own life, and allows it to be without rhyme or reason, but filled with a significant truth that gives meaning to our existence and our reason for wanting to celebrate life to its fullest extreme.

Copyright © 2016 Daniel Dercksen  All rights reserved