Knight of Cups is the third in legendary director Terrence Malick’s unofficial trilogy of memory – following the ambitious but flawed films The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. It continues his trend of exploring past autobiographical experiences of people and place and relating them to grander themes such as humanity’s place in the cosmos. The film begins with Ben Kingsley in voiceover quoting from the Bible passage “The Hymn of the Pearl”, a story in which a prince attempts to retrieve a pearl for his father, the king, but loses his memory. The story of Rick (Christian Bale), the Hollywood screenwriter at the centre of Knight of Cups, draws many parallels to the tale of the prince. Following the suicide of one brother, Rick moves to Hollywood in order to take care financially of his other sibling, ex-drug addict Barry (Wes Bentley), and his elderly father Joseph (Brian Dennehy). However, the writer becomes seduced by the decadent Hollywood lifestyle, forgetting his family. The film is structured around his relationships with multiple women, as well as his brother who we predominately see in flashback.
Knight of Cups is perhaps the ne plus ultra of pretentiousness, inciting extreme derision from some of my fellow critics following its press screening. The film alienated many due to its rejection of storytelling in favour of various vaguely connected interludes of Bale’s character pondering over the nature of existence. Christopher Plummer once said of Malick that he is a great director desperately in need of screenwriter, and this is evident here. Knight of Cups’ dialogue is almost entirely in voiceover, far too much of which is ambiguous statements in which characters ask: “Who am I?” or “Where did I go wrong”. Bale too often appears to be channelling Joey Tribbiani’s advice to “smell the fart acting” on account of his role as a silent viewer to the chaos that surrounds him.
However, despite these criticisms, there is much that is fascinating about Knight of Cups – particularly if you are interested in its director’s life. An outsider to Hollywood, Malick’s portrayal of the place, as akin to a carnival filled with eccentric oddballs, is far more engaging on a story level than his exploration of childhood or marriage in his previous two films. Many critics have noted that his depiction of the L.A culture is drawn from personal experience, following his brief taste of the lifestyle in the seventies, following the successes of Badlands and Days of Heaven. Although it is an odd thing to say about a Malick film, there is a comedic undercurrent to the work. He presents us with snippets of conversation from garden-party guests and magazine photographers which are, on at least two occasions, laugh out loud funny.
Although the film’s rambling presentation of events causes it to drag at certain spots, it never becomes boring as Malick and three-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s visuals and steady-cam shooting provide an over-abundance of gorgeous visual imagery and an intoxicating atmosphere. Never has a filmmaker managed to capture on screen so accurately the process of memory, as images transcend vast amounts of time in a matter of seconds with great fluidity. Also, the film features some energetic supporting performances from Antonio Banderas, Teresa Palmer and Wes Bentley, as well as an emotionally powerful one from Cate Blanchett, who plays Rick’s ex-wife.
Verdict: Aside from Lubezki’s work and the cast, there is absolutely nothing in Knight of Cups that will appeal to casual filmgoers. That said, those who are interested in its director or take pleasure from experimental art-house cinema may find some great treasures hiding amidst all the pretension.
Knight of Cups is in cinemas from Friday 6th May. Check out the trailer below.
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