Terrence Malick films have undergone a consistent shift since his first masterpiece, Badlands, was released in 1973.
Slowly, but surely, his films have become more and more visceral and abstract, relying more on mood and image to relay a story rather than on more typical plot devices. Knight of Cups represents perhaps his most abstract film to date.
Knight of Cups is a film about trying to understand and attain love. This description could easily fit Malick’s previous work, To The Wonder, just as easily. The angle of approach is quite different here, however. Malick uses a singular figure, Rick, played by Christian Bale, who wanders around in Los Angeles searching for human connection. While this connection is the central focus of the film, Malick does not tackle it head on. Malick, with the help of long time collaborators Emmanuel Lubezki and Jack Fisk, choose more often to focus on negative space than anything else. The camera often wanders from focusing on the one person in the room to gaze at the ripples on the surface of the water, or a plant in the corner of the room. These images are paired with Malick’s staple voice over work, performed in this film by a myriad of different people, all speaking for Rick or directly to him. The result is a film that refuses to hold the viewer’s hand. In fact, Knight of Cups is more a film that runs out ahead, not caring if you are following are not. You are compelled to follow, however, because of the sheer wonder and beauty of what you are taking in. The film is much like a dream in one scene, followed by a nightmare, but never veering too close to any reality in the visual sense. While the structure and vision of the film is otherworldly, the resulting emotional impact is every bit as human and real as you or I.
Rick is a womanizer, yet capable of emotionally engaging in a real meaningful relationship, which he does with several women in the film. What seems to be a recurring fact in Rick’s life, however, is that he is not able to maintain those relationships, often because he cannot make them work, or because outside forces complicate the matter. Rick ends up being a character looking desperately for love in every place he can, yet unable to fully attain it. Perhaps he is destined to simply struggle until his days are over. A priest seems to suggest in one scene that God does not help us avoid struggle out of love, but actually gives us struggle because He loves us. Rick ends up being a character that is easy to relate to in this sense. He often brings about his own trouble, but, much like the earthquake that happens in one scene, often he is simply the recipient of the hand he is dealt. In this film that hand he is dealt happens to be a tarot card, where the film gets its name. The Knight of Cups when dealt upright means romance and charm. When dealt reversed, however, it means unrealistic, jealousy, and moodiness. What is perhaps most interesting about the film is that both the character of Rick along with the angle of the camera is never predictable. Often it is straightforward, comfortable, and beautiful and just as often the angle is askew, upside down, or distorted. All of the meanings of the Knight of Cups seem to all play at the same time in this film, one layer on top of another, much like the way Malick has put this film together.
Overall, Knight of Cups is not Malick’s best. At his worst, though, Malick continues to prove to be a filmmaker that is unique in every way in what he brings to the screen. Knight of Cups can be frustrating to watch, mostly because you want to know why and how it is affecting you. It’s certainly abstract, but feels within grasp. It’s my opinion that any Malick film is worth watching and will most likely push the viewer to a new understanding of what can be possible in the world of film. Knight of Cups is no different in this regard. It is no Badlands, Tree of Life, or Days of Heaven, but it is a beautiful story told in a way that only cinema can truly capture.