To the surprise of precisely no one at all, the initial reviews of Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” coming out of the Berlin Film Festival are a mixed batch. Well, “mixed” doesn’t really do them justice. In the one corner, you’ve got those proclaiming the film a masterpiece, a Godardian Bacchanal with shades of “The Great Beauty”; on the other, critics who label it a wifty retread whose view of women as ephemeral sylphs verges on misogyny. Nobly holding the middle ground are the “If you like Malick, you’ll like this” peacemakers, but thus far, there aren’t many of them. To the extent that plot summary is even marginally useful with regard to Malick’s movies, “Knight” concerns a Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) in the midst of an existential crisis, drowning himself in the attentions of beautiful women (Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas et al.) while navigating the advice given by his pastor father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley), many of whom have little to no onscreen lines in a film that is again dominated by airy voiceover. With “Knight” being picked up for U.S. distribution by Broad Green Pictures immediately after its Berlin premiere, a Stateside release will hopefully be in the works soon. For now, we’ll just have to watch as partisans divide along the usual lines before seeing where we fall ourselves.
Reviews of “Knight of Cups”
Sophie Monks Kaufman, Little White Lies
The most anticipated film of Berlinale 2015 looks set to be the best one. It’s hard to imagine equivalent notes of grace and meaning being struck in this competition or indeed in this world. Grace and meaning are not new adjectives for describing the work of writer/director Terrence Malick but, gratifyingly, this time his distinctive poetic cinema encases a simple and coherent narrative. A cynic might say that Malick has filtered the objectification of women through arthouse sensibilities, but he is a step ahead. This is the story of a man whose drug of choice is women.
Eric Kohn, Indiewire
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.
Justin Chang, Variety
You go into a Terrence Malick movie expecting a gorgeous collage of sound and image, but not necessarily the sight of a neon-lit strip club, a Caesars Palace pool party, or a fashion shoot where a model is told to pose like “a dirty f—ing housewife.” In other words, there’s something at once vividly familiar and strikingly different about “Knight of Cups,” a feverish plunge into the toxic cloud of decadence swirling around a Los Angeles screenwriter gone to seed. Having made contemporary American life seem both recognizable and alien in “To the Wonder,” Malick now extends that film’s tender romantic ballet into a corrosive critique of Hollywood hedonism — a poisoned valentine to the industry by way of a Fellini-esque bacchanal. Those who have had their fill of the director’s impressionistic musings will find his seventh feature as empty as the lifestyle it puts on display; for the rest of us, there’s no denying this star-studded, never-a-dull-moment cinematic oddity represents another flawed but fascinating reframing of man’s place in the modern world.
Tim Robey, Telegraph
“Knight of Cups,” which just premiered at the Berlin film festival, begins with images so unashamedly Malicky it’s tempting to wheel out the easy charge of self-plagiarism. We wait, and wait, to see if anyone will dislodge Lubezki as the star of this particular show. Malick feels less interested in actors than he ever has. But it’s a film, in part, about being uninterested in actors. Knight of Cups is a Tarot card – Jack of Hearts, essentially – which stands for restlessness, romantic adventuring, boredom, dreaming, and sometimes fraudulence.
Peter Bradshaw, Guardian
With his latest film “Knight of Cups,” however, Malick has frankly declined. There are moments of visual brilliance here, moments of reverence and even grandeur. He is always distinctive, and anything he does must be of interest. But his style is stagnating into mannerism, cliche and self-parody. Where once he used his transcendant visual language to evoke heartland America, these tropes are now exposed in being applied to tiresome tinseltown LA, where a screenwriter played by Christian Bale undergoes what has to be the least interesting spiritual crisis in history.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
Having swung so far out of orbit on “To the Wonder” to have been sucked into a creative black hole, Terrence Malick makes it about half-way back to terra firma with “Knight of Cups.” A resolutely poetic and impressionist film about creative paralysis, indecision, father and sons, female muses and life slipping away as surely as water down a river, the seventh feature from this takes-his-time writer-director is far more partial to free association and stream-of-consciousness notations than to conventional storytelling.
Jessica Kiang, Playlist
If so, you are already a Terrence Malick fan, “To the Wonder” was probably a masterpiece and his latest film, “Knight of Cups” will delight you, as it has many. But if you are anything less than enraptured by these concepts, or if you feel like the ambitious desire to shred a whole life’s worth of memories, images, regrets, hopes and losses into fine slices, the better to pack them all into a two-hour box seems quixotic at best, you may be less engaged.
Patrick Gamble, CineVue
A visual symphony for the melancholy of modern life, his latest poetically externalises the internal trauma of a secular society left rudderless in a world of mass consumerism. Malick has always been adroit at fashioning a caricature of even the tiniest of human emotions and by now fans of the director’s work will know what to expect. However, whilst it’s easy to get swept away in the ephemeral waves of time created, Malick’s singular approach often fails to connect on anything other than a visual level.
Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood
“To the Wonder” and again, this year’s Berlin world premiere “Knight of Cups” lack the gravitas and substance of “Tree of Life” and feel like retreads covering the same philosophical concerns. Malick asks the basic questions we all ask: Who am I? Where do I belong? Who do I love? How do I find happiness? Bale expresses his thoughts on the soundtrack, as there is little live dialogue. And Ben Kingsley intones various quotations from literature, including “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Like “Tree of Life,” it’s best to let the film wash over you and enjoy Lubezki’s gorgeous images, perspectives and angles, many of which we’ve never seen before, often underwater. But a lot of them are shallow images of a shallow life, and offer a male gaze on the female form in many of its lovely guises. Not a new narrative, this.
Michael Pattison, Movie Mezzanine
Though it resurrects some of the autobiographical plot strands of “The Tree of Life,” it’s the elliptical anti-drama of “To the Wonder” that this film most resembles. Taking its name from a tarot card, “Knight of Cups” grabs the epically internalized navel-gazing of the previous film and takes it forward into full-on Malickian throttle. Located somewhere between a self-parodying fever dream and the immature illustrated scribblings of someone wondering why the world is both beautiful and messy in the same moment, this punishingly po-faced tone-poem thinks that in the twenty-first century a great artist can get away with writing lines like, “Be with me, you give me what the world can’t give: mercy, love, peace, joy…” As another character says to Rick: “Tell me something interesting.”
Dave Calhoun, Time Out
This new film feels very much like part of the same project as “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder.” All three films strive to make sense of a dislocated man reaching into his past. All three reach for the stars (there’s even a shot of Earth from space in “Knight of Cups”) and grasp for answers out of our everyday reach. All of them, too, feel like waking dreams that only their maker could truly explain or maybe even appreciate, meaning they’re as infuriating and impenetrable as they’re magical and open.
Geoffrey Macnab, Independent
Malick’s detractors argue he should have stuck at three films (his early masterpieces “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” and his magisterial comeback “The Thin Red Line.”) They contend that films like “Knight of Cups” and its predecessor “To the Wonder” are tarnishing his once immaculate reputation. A more generous assessment is that he is trying to evolve a new filmic language, one that is hyper-lyrical and hyper-intimate. “Knight of Cups” is best taken as an experimental mood piece, a cinematic meditation of love, loss and identity. As a feature film with an A-list cast, it is absurdly hermetic: a mystery without anything approaching a key.
KNIGHT OF CUPS: Flirtations w/ narrative, fragments of a life, and a portrait of Los Angeles that outdoes all others. A masterwork.
— Filmbrain (Andrew G) (@Filmbrain) February 8, 2015
KNIGHT OF CUPS: Hollywood mid-life crisis as grand existential-spiritual quest-mosaic, kaleido-oscillating between beatitude & banality.
— Neil Young (@JigsawLounge) February 8, 2015
KNIGHT OF CUPS is Malick at his most explorative—TTW was an awkward step toward what he’s arrived at here…Great? Maybe. Astonishing? Yes.
— Adam Cook (@AdamCook) February 8, 2015
KNIGHT OF CUPS feels like another branch off of TREE OF LIFE, just as TO THE WONDER did. And it’s spectacular.
— David Cox (@david_t_cox_) February 8, 2015
Knight of Cups: Terrence Malick’s latest is a captivating critique of Hollywood hedonism. America’s response to The Great Beauty #Berlinale
— Peter Yeung (@peteryeung_) February 8, 2015
Knight of Cups: just find me someone else who is capable to convey such a dense toughts in a single, stunning frame. Overwhelming #Berlinale
— Antonio Maria Abate (@antomaaba) February 8, 2015
— Ira Deutchman (@nyindieguy) February 8, 2015
KNIGHT OF CUPS, or, Thoroughly Modern Malick.The great spiritualist tackles the resolutely superficial. Lubezki sizzles, film underwhelms.
— Ben Croll (@becroll) February 8, 2015
Malick continues to circle around Tree of Life’s huge themes (death, longing, faith) with KNIGHT OF CUPS. Glad to say it works. #berlinale
— Jutta Sarhimaa (@JuttaSarhimaa) February 8, 2015
Knight of Cups – Malick is BACK & better than ever! Stunning. Mesmerizing trip thru life of an actor, pretending to be anyone but himself.
— Alex Billington (@firstshowing) February 8, 2015
KNIGHT OF CUPS: Well, at least I know what film we’ll be arguing about for the rest of 2015. #teamkoc
— Filmbrain (Andrew G) (@Filmbrain) February 8, 2015