Movie Review: ‘KNIGHT OF CUPS’ – Terrence Malick’s Cup Runneth Over


Courtney Howard // Film Critic

KNIGHT OF CUPS | 1h 58min | R
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian BaleCate BlanchettNatalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer. Imogen Poots

The cinematic works of enigmatic writer-director Terrence Malick are an acquired taste – they always have been. As a filmmaker, he risks alienating (sometimes even boring) audiences when valuing organic storytelling methods over traditional narrative structure. This is an endearing but expected hallmark of 75% of the films in his oeuvre – from THE THIN RED LINE onward. That said, in a post-THE TREE OF LIFE (a.k.a. post masterpiece) career stage, the reclusive auteur has somewhat found himself wandering into parody territory. While TO THE WONDER felt like someone aping his aesthetic, Malick’s latest feature KNIGHT OF CUPS is peak Malick in all its Malick-y glory. To be just as inscrutable with my criticism as he is with filmmaking, make of that statement what you will.

In the film, Christian Bale plays “Rick,” a screenwriter/ producer who’s on a journey to find himself in Tinseltown and, more specifically, in the vaginas laps of a few leggy ladies. Years of partying, womanizing and overdosing on excess have come to a head in the form of an existential crisisas he grapples with malaise, disenchantment and apathy. However, it’s not until punk-rock badass Della (Imogen Poots) lays it all out on a metaphorical table that Rick realizes something’s wrong. After he pulls the “knight of cups” card (a card that’s associated with love, emotion and fantasy), he re-examines all of the relationships he’s had in his life. Time is inconsequential and it’s assumed these are pieced together memories rather than a linear chronicle of Rick’s romantic entanglements and familial strife. While his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley) remain constants, women breeze in and out like ethereal presences in Rick’s life. Those women include mom (Cherry Jones), ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a model (Frieda Pinto), a married woman (Natalie Portman), a stripper (Teresa Palmer, whose introductory shoewear could inspire a whole think piece), and a rarely-glimpsed, carefree, possibly-rebound younger woman (Isabel Lucas).

KNIGHT OF CUPS marks Malick’s most straight-forward narrative in years. Don’t get me wrong – the story doesn’t immediately gel, nor is everything definitive. Heck, my reading could be totally off because this is ART! Reflective of the protagonist’s life, the film can be perplexing and insubstantial, but also incredibly deep, reflective and engaging. He nails, though never outright skewers or satirizes, Hollywood’s vapid nature. Chapters are marked by specific tarot cards – “The Moon,” “The Hanged Man,” “The Tower,” “The High Priestess” and more – which require the audience to glean deeper meaning via Google later. The fact we’re expected to come in with this prior knowledge or research it afterward is so Malick – something you’ll either abhor or adore.

Christian Bale & Natalie Portman in KNIGHT OF CUPS. Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Christian Bale & Natalie Portman in KNIGHT OF CUPS. Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.

Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki photographs Los Angeles through a beautiful lens. Our vistas have never looked so enticing. Part of the fun of this film is picking out the locations as they capture all of Los Angeles – from skid row, to Malibu mansions, to studio backlots, to downtown, to the beach. Nature versus man-made creations is very much a Malick hallmark – as is the father-son struggle. Though here, Malick goes way too on-the-nose, symbolically setting one of their arguments with one of them trapped behind bars. Symbolism can also be spotted with Portman’s knotty wool sweater (when her character is tied up in uncomfortable emotional knots). At one point, Rick’s stark apartment is robbed and the robbers ask, “Why don’t you have anything in this house?” Uh, because metaphors, dude. Near the end of the film, he walks through demolished homes – again, another metaphor. Bale playing a man wandering through nature in Armani suits is another Malick-y trope. So, yeah. You could probably play drinking-game bingo to this film. Moreso, it’s evident that TREE, WONDER and CUPS are meant to be seen as an interconnected trilogy.

Similar to the protagonist’s search for emotion within his personal relationships, so will your relationship to the filmmaker’s style dictate how you feel about this movie. Not everyone will feel their cup is half full. In fact, some will probably call it out as half-empty. But for those true Malick fans, your cups will runneth over.

KNIGHT OF CUPS opens on March 4.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.