Directed by Terrence Malick. With Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, et al.
Synopsis: A well-heeled Hollywood screenwriter searches for direction after realizing achieving his ambitions isn't the answer to happiness. Theatrical Trailer.
The ultimate extension of cinema lies beyond narrative. Film is a great medium for telling stories, but it can do much more. Actors performing well-written lines is the province of theatre. Cinema has the ability, with its preponderance of image and sound, to be far more potent. It has no need to reduce experiences to words, no burden to simplify life into discrete units. From day one it held the promise of something bigger, deeper, larger.
The earliest films reveled in the power not of the word, of course, but of the image. Take a look at Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, the legendary 1929 film from which it's been said the origins of all stylistic innovations in cinema can be found, but which more importantly captures the vitality of life experience without the need for a plot. You don't need story. You have life, and isn't life, after all, what happens in between?
Let Knight of Cups wash over you. Don't try to figure it all out. It's bigger than that, designed to reach you on a level beyond the intellectual. The cavalcade of stunning, entirely natural light-lit images gradually cohere into something whole: a successful Hollywood screenwriter (Bale) slowly realizing that the status of material success, long his aim, has not answered his search for fulfillment. We set goals, convinced achieving them will bring the fulfillment we dream of. What do you do when you get there and discover they don't? There's something more. It was always nearby.
That delicate something is what this film is about.
Bale wanders through L.A., as we do through life, contemplative and observant. The camera matches his ruminative inquisitiveness, careening around people and drifting through rooms and highways, seeing beauty everywhere, photographing light as a character, as though there was a silent, benevolent presence in our lives, always just around the corner, waiting. Bale's journey toward substance and purpose, and the pearls of wisdom he gains from each of his relationships, profoundly move to me, not least because the film uncannily mirrors journeys of my own in L.A.
Also particularly gratifying to me are how Malick, in previous films largely a purveyor of beauty in the natural world, shoots L.A. with just as much verve and celebration, as though its concrete expanses were no less ravishing than the quiet hills surrounding. It's all about our perspective. His L.A. is no den of purgatory, but as ever a place where beauty is visible by those with eyes to see it, where a thoughtful calm can read the signposts all around, guides toward a higher plane of being. What other filmmaker would cut from le Jardin de Luxembourg to a drive-in burger stand in Bartlesville, Oklahoma with no apparent judgment? Who would see the same beautiful light in both places? You can understand why I like this guy.
As well, the same generosity of perspective is applied to his characters. It isn't only Blanchett's doctor or Portman's affluent wife who are the arbiters of wisdom in this picture, though they might have the more apparent intellectual capacity. Look at Teresa Palmer's stripper, whose grasp of the ephemerality of substance in Hollywood is grounded and acute ("real life is so hard to find"), or Imogen Poots' aspiring starlet, who has no status or material accomplishment to her name, yet in a sentence recapitulates Bale's entire philosophical struggle. The film may take place in Hollywood, but it is not of it.
Most complaints about late-period Malick involve critics wishing the films were more comprehensible, more digestible, plot-driven… basically, more ordinary. I say revel in the differences. It's too unlike other films to be judged by their standards. You've never seen photography this dazzling, a camera this sensitive, this untethered, interior monologue this private. It's a film about the issues we all think about, but rarely speak aloud.
That's that! Thanks for reading!
The New Yorker. Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” Challenges Hollywood to Do Better: Richard Brody eloquently expounds on Knight of Cups, something of a lone wolf in the face of the generally dismissive reviews it received.
Taste of Cinema. 8 Reasons Why “Knight of Cups” Is Terrence Malick’s Best Film So Far
RogerEbert.com. Knight of Cups (Four stars).
San Francisco Chronicle. ‘Knight of Cups’ transcends mere plot and character
The Village Voice. Malick Goes L.A. in the Sumptuous ‘Knight of Cups’