Knight of Cups ★★★★★

Whether you view the ever-polarizing Terrence Malick’s abstract, antinarrative meditations as transcendent genius or pretentious nonsense, his relentless unwillingness to conform to any semblance of convention is something to be admired. Rather than step back and re-think his method after To the Wonder was critically and commercially eviscerated, Malick doubled-down on his auteuristic flourishes in Knight of Cups, providing enough seemingly disjointed poetic ramblings to elicit physical disgust from mainstream moviegoers everywhere… And it’s hard to blame them. In a climate where only the most financially-proven film archetypes are given more than a hundred theaters to play in, audiences have become inundated with more and more different versions of the same product, and it’s slowly but surely crippling the industry’s willingness to innovate… But I digress. Similar to Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s countercultural surrealist masterpiece Un Chien Andalou, Malick’s work poses the question “What is film?” and answers with the resounding syllable “Art”.
-
Like all true art, the value lies entirely in the eye of the beholder; and as such, I won’t presume to speak of this film with any form of objectivity. That being said, Knight of Cups is Terrence Malick’s most hauntingly poetic, visually immersive, deceptively intricate musing to date. Unfortunately, the majority of audiences’ remain shackled to the notion that a cohesive narrative is somehow essential to effective storytelling and refuse to engage with what’s being presented to them. To those people, I earnestly ask you to temporarily set aside your preconceived understanding of cinema and embrace Knight of Cups as an experience rather than a movie. If you find yourself checking your phone ten minutes in, then at least you tried… To say Malick’s lyrical reveries are not for everyone would be an understatement.
-
Adapted from John Bunyan’s revered Christian allegory The Pilgram’s Progress, Knight of Cups follows Eric (Christian Bale’s character, whose name, like everyone else’s, is scarcely if ever heard) in the midst of an emotional and spiritual crisis. After having the revelation he’s spent the past thirty years “living the life of someone [he] didn’t even know”, Eric sets out to [re]discover himself and his purpose by viewing his life through a more introspective, inquisitive lens, a lens that the audience isn’t given much access to. Instead, Malick utilizes Emmanuel Lubezki’s hyperactive cinematography to focus entirely on the emotion elicited from mostly unheard dialogue and inner monologues spliced together with gorgeously rendered imagery, lingering just long enough to grasp the impact of a scene without necessarily understanding its content. Though initially off-putting, the dreamlike quality this approach has lends itself extremely well to the existential ideas being examined.
-
Set within the abstract, romanticized framework of being a knight sent from the far East in search of a pearl in a strange land, Eric is consistently reminded of the pearl he seeks by his father who sent him. This obvious homage to the source material gives Malick the perfect opportunity to seamlessly weave his trademarked religious themes into his coming-of-age-esque character study without forsaking Eric’s lavished and lascivious predispositions. Additionally, a second unseen narrator provides several passages from The Pilgrim’s Progress and The Bible strategically layered throughout the debauchery-riddled Hollywood hellscape, allowing Malick to approach religious themes from three distinct angles (including the poignant priest’s monologue that comes standard with his recent films).
-
From a technical standpoint, Knight of Cups is borderline perfection. I can’t even imagine how tiresomely tedious it must have been working as an editor on a film with this sort of abstractly precise vision, but they managed to do a magnificent job creating a poetic, almost hypnotic pace that, when paired with Hanan Townshend’s expertly crafted Arabian-esque score, never loses its grasp on the audience until the credits start rolling. The sound mixers also deserve additional praise for how effectively they leveled different elements of the soundscape in order to draw the audience’s attention exactly where Malick wants it. I’d also be remiss not to mention the visual mastery every single shot of this film displays. One of the most beautiful films in recent memory.
-
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Knight of Cups is how faithful an adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress it truly is. In the seventeenth century Christian epic, the hero finds himself lost and in need of redemption, and so he sets off through a series of distinctly labeled challenges until he ultimately finds the redemption he was after. While aside from Eric’s overarching metaphorical journey through the desert, the two may not share any direct plot points, Knight of Cups is broken up in precisely the same way. In each of the film’s eight sections named after tarot cards (as is the film’s title), the hero is confronted with a specific element that helps further him along his journey towards the ultimate goal. Additionally (and much more significantly), the majority of the imagery contained within Knight of Cups was ripped from the pages of The Pilgrim’s Progress. If you’re like me and much of Malick’s imagery and editing choices went over your head on your first viewing, read the source material and it will add significant levels of comprehension to the film.
-
Bottom line, Knight of Cups is quite possibly his most polarizing to date, but I think it’s safe to say that if you’ve enjoyed his other films, there will be more than enough to enjoy in Knight of Cups. I think the critical opinion of this film will mimic a much slower burning The Tree of Life… It only took a few years for Tree of Life to go from being booed at its Cannes premiere to Oscar contender, and ten years from now when Knight of Cups is receiving its first Criterion release, it too will be viewed very differently. 10/10.

Dov liked these reviews

All