Knight of Cups

Yes, Terrence Malick fans. Knight of Cups is finally here.

For those unfamiliar with the legendary though anything  but prolific filmmaker, his work isn’t easy to describe. When talking about his style, it’s just as easy to sound uncultured when trying not to sound pretentious as it is to sound pompous when trying not to sound uncivilized. So for now I’ll just say that his fans can recognize his presence behind the camera from his distinctive style as easily as they can identify Morgan Freeman by his voice or John Travolta by his chin. I can only name a couple (Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson) of American directors that working today with such a distinctive voice.

As strange as the comparison between Tarantino and Malick may seem, True Romance (Quentin’s first screenplay) was clearly and deliberately influenced by Badlands (Terrence’s first feature). Malick, who also wrote an uncredited draft of Dirty Harry, changed his approach to storytelling significantly after his directorial debut, a (relatively) straightforward story of young lovers on a crime spree. The director has only made six films since including Knight of Cups but all of them are notoriously light on dialogue, heavy on introspective voiceover, and generous with beautiful yet sometimes abstract imagery.

Because he has directed only six films in 43 years, you may have guessed that they knight of cups 2take forever to make. Both The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011) were based on scripts that he started back in the 70s. They also take forever to edit. He reportedly shot over a million feet of film for The New World, which of course had to be edited down to a concise 135 minutes. Knight of Cups, shot during the summer of 2012, spent nearly four years in post-production. Both Christian Bale and Natalie Portman have said that they spent more time recording their voiceovers than they did in front of the camera.

Here’s where I really risk sounding like an asshole. Malick’s films have very little in the way of conventional plot and a whole lot in the way of atmosphere and feeling. They exist to be experienced, not understood. They’re not for everyone. I’m not even sure that they’re for me. To compare Knight of Cups to any of the director’s post-Badlands works, you’d have to be a much more devoted fan than I am.

"Knight of Cups"

I will say that Cups offers even less dialogue than The Tree of Life and yet its “plot”, about a screenwriter (Bale) who experiences some existential angst after seeming to have forgotten his sense of purpose, is somehow easier to follow. The director brings his unique vision to dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish, vision of modern Los Angeles and Las Vegas. It’s a significant change of scenery for a filmmaker who usually makes period pieces. The cast is filled with recognizable faces, including Bale, Portman, and Cate Blanchett but to judge the performances would be to miss the point. Even Fabio can act in a Terrence Malick movie. That’s not a joke. He actually has a small part in this.

Knight of Cups probably won’t convert those who found Malick’s other films dull or inaccessible but, if you’ve never seen one, it’s worth a watch even if only for an experience that no one else in Hollywood can give you.

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23 thoughts on “Knight of Cups

  1. jmount43

    I’ve enjoyed every film of Malick’s that I have had the pleasure of seeing (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life). I list Badlands and Days of Heaven as films that should be mandatory viewing for any film student. I can’t wait to see Knight of Cups.

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    1. Matt Post author

      I’ve had so much trouble tracking down Days of Heaven. It’s the only one I haven’t seen. I’d be interested in hearing how you feel about Knight of Cups when you see it and how it measures up to some of the others. I was very impressed.

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  2. Brittani

    How is it possible to have less dialogue than Tree of Life? Wow. I think I’m just bitter because I tried so hard to like Malick because everyone else does and I just can’t. The fly on the wall vision doesn’t work for me. I wish it did.

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  3. ridicuryder

    Matt,

    I agree with your “see them anyway” advice for Malik films. I enjoy walking away from a painting that I don’t understand, but it evokes a feeling or tender idea just out of my grasp in the moment. I also think a commercial can be brilliant and leave you feeling shrewd for getting its shrewdness. I can’t remember a single thing about Tree of Life, but I remember leaving the theater with a mixture of feelings and very slender ideas sweeping across my brainpan…I’m pretty sure a few of them are still tumbling there.

    Mark

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    1. Matt Post author

      Thanks Mark. I like the connection you make to a good painting. I was very impressed with The Tree of Life but probably wasn’t in the right mindset when I watched it. I think I couldn’t get out of my head enough to really experience it. I did walk away from Knight of Cups feeling a lot of different things though.

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  4. ninvoid99

    I’m still debating whether this or To the Wonder is his weakest film as I saw the latter more than a month ago as a re-watch where I found myself being sucked in by what he was doing. I think he is coming to the point where he is more about trying to recreate the experiences he had in his life and interpret it into ways that might seem not entirely autobiographical.

    I think he is also experimenting more with not going into traditional plot conventions from point A to point B as I think he finds it not very challenging and wants to do something that isn’t about plot points and such. Yeah, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I like where he’s going. Maybe I’ll like this film even more when I see it the second time around.

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    1. Matt Post author

      It’s really hard for me to compare because I only see his films once when they first come out and don’t think I’ve rewatched a single one. So it’s hard for me to remember. I really did enjoy this one though.

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      1. Matt Post author

        That doesn’t surprise me. I have to say thought that it’s tough to work up the energy to sit through them again.

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  5. Pingback: Knight of Cups review trailer | CFY

  6. Khalid Rafi

    I am a fan of Malick’s earlier, more accessible work which includes Days of Heaven, Badlands, The Thin Red Line. I even like Tree of Life, but I grown more and more sour of him recently. I thought To the Wonder was bad enough but this really pushed the limits even for his standards. Found it to be too empty and vacuous to be taken seriously and to me, it almost felt as if Malick was making a self-parody.

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  7. Lloyd Marken

    Badlands maybe his most accessible but you can see the meditative film sequences in it that would become part of his distinctive style. I saw it on the big screen at BIFF 2005 and it was beautiful. Also huge fan of Tree of Life. Great review, has me very intrigued to see this one now.

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    1. Matt Post author

      That must have been an awesome experience. I just watched it on a portable DVD player. I agree that you can spot lots of hints of his later work in Badlands.

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