The Extraordinary Loneliness and Overwhelming Sensibilities of Terrence Malick: “Knight of Cups” Review

knight of cups film review by daniel dewar

Terrence Malick’s follow up to 2013’s dazzling “To The Wonder” is another meditation on the human world and the relationships and bodies that inhabit it. It’s an introspective work intensely engendering the world he interacts with.

Malick’s stylistic choices in “Knight of Cups” will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work and will do little to endear those who have been alienated by it in the past. It acts as a continued mood piece from “To The Wonder”, only this time there is more to distract him.

Finding inspiration in the hyper-energy and aural-stimuli of Los Angeles, “Knight of Cups” follows Hollywood screenwriter, Rick (Christian Bale), seeking to understand and mend his relationships with his brother (Wes Bentley) and his dying father (Brian Dennehy). Rick lives in excess and we follow his transgressions through the impermanent women in his life—Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer—as well as the permanent—his ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett), and Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a married woman who he falls deeply in love with.

It is a noisy film. The soundtrack is filled with diegetic and non-diegetic sounds that overlap and impose on each other. Scenes are interrupted by planes flying overhead or cars driving by. The sound of Los Angeles even imposes itself on the end credits as a gorgeous phonographic recording plays out over the last half. There is more dialogue than his previous two films though in true Malick style, it floats in and out of the soundscape. Lines are mixed in and cut suddenly. Sentences overlap. One of Rick’s internal monologues is interrupted by conversation.

During the initial frames, Ben Kingsley (through a non-character voiceover) tells the story of a King of the East who sent his son down to Egypt to find a pearl. When the Prince arrived in Egypt, the people poured him a cup and when he drank from it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and he went to sleep. Malick’s work is imbued with a sense of elusiveness—of innocence and meaning. Despite his memory loss, the Prince can’t help but feel he’s being called by something.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki uses the light of each frame’s composition to convey the spatiality of its objects—between themselves and those around them. There’s no other photographer or director like Lubezki and Malick who understand how light can interact with the very cinema the camera is capturing. This renders the film’s spiritual and moral core through their visual poetry. The camera never stops moving. It glides and swings, it gives and takes. They use jarringly grainy digital footage for Rick’s childhood. The memory exists but Rick’s impression and association of it grows uglier. The actors are given mini-cams to hold and point at themselves as they dive into the ocean. There are gorgeous edits between Rick and his father, their shared (or inherited) body language overlapping the moments. What is broken can only become more broke.

The restless imagery is enhanced by an intelligent soundtrack, both of original and licensed work. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the music used inspired the scenes that they play over. Malick writes and directs for musical beats and paints in orchestral tones. Two choices in particular stand out.

“Exodus”, the classical composition by the late Polish composer Wojciech Kilar, is used as a recurring motif throughout the film. It’s a composition supported by a reliable marching rhythm, it’s phrasing rooted in Jewish melody. The work is an exaltation of freedom—Kilar refers to the joyous exclamation of the Israelites after crossing the Red Sea.

Malick’s Los Angeles setting, its nightclubs and strip clubs, shows his musical sensibility is equally sharp when it comes to modern electronic music. Burial’s “Ashtray Wasp” plays over a beautifully neon-lit strip club scene. Burial (real name William Emmanuel Bevan) is a modern composer with a classical sensibility, replacing the orchestra with a fusion of grime, jungle and UK garage. Malick presumably found the song to be a musical reflection—it also features ideas that run in and out of the soundscape. Form and structure disappear, the song itself about the ability to let go of past selves and move on.

How Malick’s films sound is one of their greatest pleasures. When you leave the theatre you become acutely aware of how the world sounds around you—the sound of your feet on the ground, the hushed voices of people walking by, the bird songs and the wind in the trees. The sound design works to evoke the very stuff of Malick’s cinema—a sense of how the world feels when we are keenly aware of our place within it. After a Terrence Malick film, you’re inclined to hold out your arms and pay attention to the sensors on your skin or how your body reacts to the presence of others around you. You’ll think about the connection between the two physical entities and perhaps think about the metaphysical.

Though “Knight of Cups” is set in the very modern day (“To The Wonder” was also set in the modern day although its isolated country setting served to disconnect the characters from the modern world), it’s clear Malick still has time and history on his mind. Early in the film, Rick refers to the palm trees in Los Angeles, “a reminder that anything is possible.” Malick will revisit this idea as Rick leaves the city for the desert, showing us ancient plants and rock—the natural world that existed long before the possibility of Los Angeles or even humans. Toward the end of the film, Rick visits an abandoned farmhouse. It’s never made clear if this is the house he grew up in though it matters little to the overall effect—its rotting timber tells us all of this will return to the dust. During the opening shots, Malick shows us the Aurora Borealis from space, the atmospheric lights blanketing the city lights—the cosmic blanketing the literal light of humankind. If life is anything, it is impermanent.

There has always been a sensuality to his work that is most commonly read as a spiritual yearning—either religious in the American sense, or at the very least, intensely focused on a relationships with a god or gods. Malick continues to paint his relationships with the same sensualness, only more so than other film, he makes the human part explicit. The spirituality Rick feels, his most intense relationships, are with his own thoughts or those around him. God and religion are invoked from the voiceover of an unseen Friar (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Later in the film it is revealed to be a conversation between the Friar and Rick’s dying father. Religion is made expressly the domain of a dying generation. “The Tree of Life” and “To The Wonder” gave the impression that character monologues were conversations with God. Here, they speak to each other.

Borrowing from “The Tree of Life”, where Malick gave us Jack’s vision of heaven, he returns to this imagery only this time on the beach at Santa Monica, the camera moving through beach-goers but keenly aware of the children playing at the shore. Malick mourns for, and is possibly envious of, them.

“Knight of Cups” is filled with all of the strands of love—how we love, are loved and how we seek and give forgiveness. It’s about the extraordinary loneliness and overwhelming sensibilities that align to human artifice. Malick revels in the extraordinary.

At seventy-one, Malick is making films that work toward the heart of cinema and everything that can influence in the non-cinematic world—his only equal being Jean-Luc Godard. They both understand that cinema—its style and its content—can be the effect. They are the most vital filmmakers working today.