Berlin Review: Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’ Pushes the Director’s Style to Its Limits

Berlin Review: Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' Pushes the Director's Style to Its Limits

Terrence Malick’s recent burst of work — starting with “The Tree of Life” in 2011 and continued with 2012’s “To the Wonder” — has shown an increasing disinterest in the boundaries of conventional narrative. “Knight of Cups” is no exception. The gorgeous, meandering portrait of empty Hollywood-fueled hedonism and a burnt-out screenwriter (Christian Bale) struggling to escape its clutches pushes the abstract qualities of the director’s late period output to its extremes. 

Filled to the brim with whispery voiceover narration, roaming camerawork and an unending collage of lush images to evoke its forlorn character’s desire to escape the clutches of vapidity, “Knight of Cups” is always lovely to regard — but only diehard Malick fans may not tire of watching the same tropes rearranged indefinitely for this two hour montage of denial, regret and spiritual yearning.

READ MORE: ‘Knight of Cups’ Plays Berlin: Terrence Malick Follows Christian Bale to Hollywood

The movie’s opening minutes make it clear which cinematic universe we’re in: As John Gielgud delivers, in voiceover narration, the first of many excerpts from John Bunyan’s 1676 Christian tome “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” Bale wanders a windswept beach not unlike the backdrop of the climactic sequence in “The Tree of Life.” Then Malick cuts to a CGI image of Earth seen from space, enshrouded by the northern lights and a satellite lurking above them. For Malick to open with such immediate splendor should come as no surprise, but the ensuing tale is far more grounded.

From there, “Knight of Cups” dives straight into its protagonist’s conundrum. With images of Bale’s character, Rick, running wild at a palatial house party set to Hanan Townshend’s cosmic score, narrator Brian Dennehy recounts the tale of the Knight of Cups — a tarot card figure who represents self-involvement, “sought a pearl from the depths of the sea,” but then drank from a cup that erased his memories of possessing royal blood. But “the king didn’t forget his son,” we’re reminded. So begins the chronicle of famous actor Rick, the son of a similarly distant thespian (Dennehy), facing the burdens of their family history and other travails as Rick seeks some modicum of peace. At least, that’s about as much of a traditional framework as Malick offers up.

For some time, “Knight of Cups” lingers in Rick’s troubled mindset with an appealing sense of mystery. With Emmanuel Lubezki’s typically slick visuals leading the way, Malick sketches out a backstory of sorts, as Rick squabbles with his brother (Wes Bentley) and refers to the apparent suicide of another sibling; meanwhile, he’s plagued by memories of his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) and copes with slick agents eager to get him to take on new projects.

There’s a sense of freshness to watching Malick’s dreamlike storytelling take root in a fully modern setting for the first time: Strip clubs, drab highways and even the Warner Bros. backlot take on a poetic quality that reflects Rick’s sense of dislocation. As always with Malick, individual moments hold substantial intrigue: An early sequence finds Rick feeling the ground outside his apartment in the aftermath of an earthquake as he seeks to become one with the natural world beyond the grasp of his superficial surroundings.

But Malick’s free-wheeling approach means that the movie never lingers on its compelling images or philosophical conceits too long. A tone poem on the vapidity of fame, “Knight of Cups” rarely sits still, and its restlessness eventually grow tedious. Once Rick finds himself confronting religious urges, aided by an encouraging priest, “Knight of Cups” begins to feel like a series of outtakes from any number of other Malick excursions. Pretty and discardable in equal measures, the movie illustrates ingredients of the filmmaker’s appeal while falling short of assembling them into a coherent whole.

Yet fans of Malick’s strongest work, from “Badlands” to “The Thin Red Line,” may find some allure in the new movie’s contemporary hook. Mixing home video footage from Rick’s youth with metropolitan imagery, the movie also attempts to deal with facets of pop culture through a meditative lens. In one notable sequence, Rick wanders through an expansive outdoor party populated by countless famous faces at the behest of an older star (Antonio Banderas, oddly enough riffing on his post-divorce life in a fleeting voiceover).

Recognizable faces come and go, including comedians Nick Kroll and Nick Offerman, but their appearances hardly register as more than random curiosities. Malick’s first stab at exploring the modern world is unsurprisingly out of sync with it.

READ MORE: ‘Sleepy Hollow’ Star Katia Winter on a Potential Season 3 & Improvising With Christian Bale in ‘Knight of Cups’

Eventually, “Knight of Cups” finds some respite for the beleaguered Rick when he meets a more supportive woman (Natalie Portman) who ultimately provides him with the salvation he seeks. However, their courtship hardly registers as more than an ethereal snapshot of burgeoning romance. Despite the uplifting atmosphere surrounding the movie’s final act, “Knight of Cups” foregrounds Malick’s fetishistic obsession with small moments at the expense of lasting emotion.

One could argue, of course, that such disconnect reflects Rick’s own challenges. To that end, “Knight of Cups” succeeds. “Treat this world as it deserves,” the narrator intones. “There are no principles. Just circumstances.” It’s an apt description of the movie’s aimless rhythms throughout.

Still, there’s something inspiring about the take-no-prisoners approach of Malick’s cosmic vision, which follows its own path. In the context of a story about the restrictions of commercially-mandated filmmaking, it may be the closest we get to a mission statement in the elusive director’s career.

But even if one goes with the flow and embraces its underlying thematic focus, “Knight of Cups” falls short of sustaining a coherent stance. While its formalism resembles “To the Wonder” and “The Tree of Life,” it lacks their singular focus. By distilling his appeal to its most rudimentary elements, Malick regularly lingers on the cusp of self-parody. Rick’s struggle has its moments of magical splendor, but just as frequently feels as hazy as the diminished memory of that fabled knight.

Grade: B

“Knight of Cups” premiered this weekend at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

READ MORE: Christian Bale and Natalie Portman on Making ‘Knight of Cups’ With Terrence Malick

This Article is related to: Reviews and tagged , , , , ,


Comments

mark

Clearly, the director wasn’t aiming for coherence. Most viewers will seek coherence and so if it was the director’s intention to capture the attention of a maximum number of viewers, the movie is a failure. But that just isn’t the case. Based on artistic merit, the movie is far more interesting than so many of the banal movies out there that manage to be coherent but without challenging either the medium or the viewer. There is a danger to lacking coherence, in that a non-linear narrative that over-relies on poetic framing can get tediously circular, but the movie was still well worth watching.

JV

@Dennis is anyone actually capable of articulating ‘spiritual matters’. Malick’s films seem to be the closest that we can get to that in cinema.

CC

His visual aesthetic is utterly doomed by HD video and he doesn’t seem to understand that. When the magical photochemical process of celluloid is removed- his films look like Very high quality home movies with a budget.

sam

Very ellegant analysis Eric

I dont always agree...

@VEDRAN I agree with you

Vedran

How can you "articulate spiritual matters"? I find trying to intellectualize Malick’s movies a bit childish.

Jason

Appreciate the review….

JT

Reviewing a Terence Malick film is pointless, really. You’re either going to love it or hate it. If you’re interested in Malick’s work, you’ll see the film and get out of it what you will. It’s not like Malick cares what anyone thinks, which is what makes even his less successful films much more interesting than the best films of all mainstream directors. Why does he keep getting funding and draw A-list actors? Because he’s still considered a major filmmaker. Just read what actors say who have worked with him and it’s clear why A-listers who are usually stuck in completely unchallenging Hollywood films want to be in something so different and exciting.

Nick

@Dennis I think it helps to be aware of Malick’s extensive background in phenomenological philosophy in thinking about how to approach his films. It’s not really so much about the "articulation" of themes as it is about the representation of subjective experience through a filmic style that itself is vividly sensory. If you expecting only want easily decipherable narratives, I’d suggest the Victorian novel.

FilmInBerlin

Why pay for actors when robots could do what M wants! Just saw in Berlin and thought I was watching a sophomore imitation. Ouch!

Lucien

If The Tree of Life has "singular focus", The Lord of the Rings is a word of intense realism!

Dennis Harvey

Why does his navel-gazing even continue to get funding and draw A-list actors? The last time he made anything that had any possibility of connecting beyond a small diehard coterie were the more grounded scenes in "Tree of Life," and even those were largely undone by the woo-woo twirlydancing nonsense of other scenes, esp. the whole Sean Penn strand. Malick has snapped tether, and while it’s interesting to have a major filmmaker obsessed with spiritual matters, he doesn’t seem capable of actually articulating them.

Cathleen Rountree

Nicely analyzed and written, Eric.

Nick

I’d argue Malick was never really interested in abiding by conventional narrative boundaries.

Josh

Loved Tree of Life. Hated To the Wonder. All this sounds ominous. The trailer made it look like what would happen if you used Telenovela actors in the world’s longest perfume commercial.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *