Thoughts On… Knight of Cups (2015)

knight-of-cups-posterDirector Terrence Malick really is a master of experimental cinema – both in terms of experimental content and visual direction. His newest endeavour, Knight of Cups (2015), follows in the same vein as his previous films The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012). But does it live up to Malick’s reputation as the master of his craft? Its synopsis is as follows:

A screenwriter living in Los Angeles tries to make sense of the strange events occurring around him. While he’s successful in his career, his life feels empty. Haunted by the death of one brother and the dire circumstances of the other, he finds temporary solace in the Hollywood excess that defines his existence. Women provide a distraction to the daily pain he must endure. And every encounter that comes his way brings him closer to finding his place in the world. (source)

Here is a selection of thoughts I had whilst watching this strange film.

  1.  Like all of Terrence Malick’s films, Knight of Cups is absolutely gorgeous to watch. It is visually stunning, with some shots so beautiful that they can elicit a gasp of delight from the most jaded of cinematography enthusiasts.
  2. Unfortunately, for me, the wonderment stops at just about there.
  3. I loved Malick’s The Tree of Life – I absolutely loved it, dinosaur sequence and all, even the bits where Sean Penn absent-mindedly touches things whilst staring off into the distance. It was a truly beautiful film, a work of art.
  4. But for me, Knight of Cups was so empty, and apart from the insanely beautiful cinematography and direction, there wasn’t much to engage with. It’s kind of exactly like The Tree of Life, except it doesn’t work as well.
  5. You could spend all of your life thinking about this film and trying to work it out, but I doubt you’d get anywhere. The themes of the film are blatant and in your face, but the way the themes are interpreted by the actors feels very empty and non-committal.
  6. What Terrence Malick did for this film was to get the actors to make up their own dialogue as they went along, and film them as they did so, for hours and hours at a time. As a result, some sequences are so awkward (the party scene in particular) as it feels like certain actors don’t really know what to do with themselves.
  7. I wrote a million notes about the possible symbolism in the film, about how each segment is named after a tarot card and what this could mean for both the segments and the overall story, but it all really amounts to naught given that the contents of the film were essentially made up as it went along. Kind of frustrating.
  8. The highlight for me was Cate Blanchett’s performance. She is a goddess. There are approximately one million actor cameos in Knight of Cups, particularly in the aforementioned party scene, but Blanchett stands out as someone who acts the non-script with what feels like an actual purpose.
  9. Cinematographer Emmanuel Luzbecki also worked on Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), another visual accomplishment. I will probably have to do a cinematography post on this one, because it is so artfully composed, even if the rest didn’t quite work for me.
  10. Ultimately, if you’re wanting to see Knight of Cups, just be prepared for its stupendous beauty, and also to see Christian Bale staring into the distance every scene or so. You’re going to see a lot of this:

knight4

3/5
Watch the trailer here.

23 comments

  1. Sums up my feelings about Malick. Experimental cinema is all fine and dandy, but at some point I think the guy just needs a script to ground his experimentation in SOME THING.

    Still looking forward to seeing this, but TO THE WONDER felt like a 2 hour trailer to me and this looks in that vein.

    1. That’s exactly right, he needs some kind of grounding to rein in his directorial ego and get back to the basics which worked so well for him earlier on! I forgot to mention it, but this one really felt like a two hour long music video. Or like a whole bunch of music videos tacked on to one another. A very strange experience indeed.

  2. Hmm, I’ve heard Malick get’s too far with his style in this one, which seems to be the case as well reading your review. Malick either does it for me or totally misses, but thanks for the review! Might check this out and do a review myself! HA! Yeah I bet it would have been super awkward just making up your own lines.

    1. Would love to read your thoughts on this one! It’s such a weird one because apparently he shot hours and hours of improvised footage, in pursuit of some kind of perfection. But it just doesn’t work, aside from his characteristically amazing directorial style.

      1. Yeah I think I’m gonna give it a shot, and maybe if its not too bad, I’ll do a review on it 🙂

  3. abbiosbiston · · Reply

    I so want to get Terrence Malick… but I just don’t.

    1. You’re definitely not alone on that one Abbi! This film is pretty ridiculous.

  4. I tried watching “Tree Of Life” but gave up after forty minutes (and most of that was on fast forward) as I had no clue what was going on, nor did I care either.

    Kudos to you if you get it and can appreciate it but felt like pretentious and self-indulgent twaddle to me. Sorry. :/

    1. It’s funny because I watched The Tree of Life with a big group of people, and probably about 80% the group thought the film was completely pretentious, to the point of straight-out laughing at some scenes. But for some reason it really captured my heart! I’m considering re-watching it to see if it has the same effect as when I first saw it.

      1. Maybe if you are sober this time? 😉 😛

  5. I love Malick’s first 3 films, but everything he’s done since The Thin Red Line has left me cold.
    It took me 3 or 4 sittings to get through To the Wonder and I’ll definitely be giving this one a miss.

    1. The Thin Red Line was so great. The man knows how to work with an actual narrative, that’s for sure.

  6. Fan of Malick. I hated Tree of Life – self indulgent and pretentious and yet I think of it from time to time. I thought The Thin Red Line was a better film than Saving Private Ryan, Every time I want to irk my wife I just bring up Tree of Life.

    1. Haha! Which bits do you bring up from The Tree of Life – the dinosaurs bit, or the bit where Sean Penn wanders around aimlessly looking at things?

      1. I just mention the title….

        1. Sometimes simplicity really does work best!

  7. Great description. I’m with you, I couldn’t even rate it cos its just so different to anything else. I didn’t know that about the making up the dialogue on the spot, that certain explains a lot!!

    1. Sure does! The way I felt about the film made a lot more sense when I learned that all the dialogue was improvised apart from the voiceover.

  8. Hmmmm… I just don’t know if this is my thing. Great thoughts!

    1. Thanks Zoe! It may well be not your thing, particularly if you can’t see yourself watching what feels like a two hour long music video!

  9. I saw Tree of Life and To The Wonder both in theaters and enjoyed them a lot there, but did not have the same appreciation watching them at home. The New World, Badlands and Tree of Life may be my favorite of the guy. I want to see this one, but am afraid I’ll never get to see it in theaters like I want to. I can catch it at home but am afraid I wont be as invested as I would be if it were in theaters

    1. I do wonder if watching this on a huge, immersive cinema screen would be a better experience than watching it at home. That said, I watched The Tree of Life at home and still enjoyed it!

  10. […] made me laugh! It seems like Knight of Cups is a really love-it-or-hate-it film (spoiler alert, I kind of hated it a bit). Some people say its apparent meaning can be seen after more than one viewing but I’m not […]

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