Film review: Knight of Cups

David Gritten / 06 May 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews Knight of Cups, the latest from revered director Terrence Malick.

If you commit to seeing a Terrence Malick film, you know you’re letting yourself in for a long spell of visual ecstasy. You can easily argue that no-one makes films that look quite as exquisite as Malick’s; it helps that his last four have been shot with uncanny skill by Emmanuel Lubezki, who has just completed a hat-trick of best cinematography Oscar wins in consecutive years (for Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant). So it’s no surprise that Malick’s latest picture Knight of Cups looks ravishing.

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Set in Los Angeles and Vegas, its theme, which vaguely references tarot cards, concerns a successful screenwriter (played by Christian Bale), tormented by fractious relationships with his father and brother, and his failed romances with half a dozen woman who drift in and out of his life. Did someone say no man is an island? This one is; he’s alone with his teeming, desolate emotions, given voice in husky whispers on the soundtrack.

It’s knowingly executed, and Lubezki’s cameras dip and swirl artily around the players. Ben Kingsley can be heard enunciating excerpts from The Pilgrim’s Progress. One comes to feel this all must mean an awful lot; yet its philosophical depths remain elusive.

On a mundane level, it doesn’t help the film’s case that Bale’s character remains sternly miserable throughout. He’s good-looking, wears great clothes, and his work is in demand. It feels almost redundant to mention that the women in his life -- three of them played by Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Frieda Pinto, just for starters -- are stunningly attractive. (As it happens, I have a few screenwriter friends who find the notion that a man in their profession could be a magnet for so much beauty utterly hilarious.)

Knight of Cups lasts for close to two hours, and feels like it; you emerge with the paradoxical feeling that no-one but Malick could have made it, yet its virtuosity does not quite compensate for the fact it has nothing to say.

It’s a shame that Malick has shunted his work into this kind of cul-de-sac, because at his best his talent is fearsome. Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) were two of the greatest American films in a stellar decade for American films.

The subsequent 20-year hiatus in his career was vindicated by the masterpiece that emerged, The Thin Red Line (1998), an unforgettably brilliant war movie. But since then, Malick seems to have been looking inward, and the musing, muttering style of his last four films has become increasingly single-minded and disappointing.

I’d never counsel any serious filmgoer against seeing a Malick film, and I’ll be near the front of the queue for his next one. But Knight of Cups suggests he’s a vastly talented man, working with brilliant collaborators like Lubezki, while in a major artistic rut himself. Malick is now 72, though there’s nothing to suggest this visionary director couldn’t change direction if he so wished. I only hope he does.  

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