'Knight of Cups': Berlin Review

Knight of Cups
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Terrence Malick's impressionistic, elusive look at beautiful Hollywood people who get what they want but not what they need.

Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman star in the story of a screenwriter trying to make sense of his strange surroundings.

Having swung so far out of orbit on To the Wonder to have been sucked into a creative black hole, Terrence Malick makes it about half-way back to terra firma with Knight of Cups. A resolutely poetic and impressionist film about creative paralysis, indecision, father and sons, female muses and life slipping away as surely as water down a river, the seventh feature from this takes-his-time writer-director is far more partial to free association and stream-of-consciousness notations than to conventional storytelling. The upshot is a certain tedium and repetitiveness along with the rhythmic niceties and imaginative riffs. But whereas his last work of real weight, The Tree of Life, achieved rarified moments of emotional and lyrical expressiveness, this one mostly operates on a more dramatically mundane, private and even narcissistic level. While the name cast will help, box office potential is still very modest.

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Its title referring to the tarot card depicting a romantic seeker ruled by his emotions rather than logic, Knight of Cups, as most reductively described, is about a guy in the film business (it's not even clear what he does — the press notes state that he's a screenwriter, but internal evidence would suggest a director) who wanders around L.A. having fleeting encounters with many women (all of them uncommonly beautiful) and a few men (his father and brother, a couple of agents) while trying to patch together some sense of his life. He rarely says much (although rather more than Ben Affleck did in To the Wonder) and just about all of his meetings are inconclusive, leaving much unfinished emotional, psychic and spiritual business behind.

Examined with more nuance, this subjective, physically tactile film is designed not to play out dramatic encounters in a theatrical way, but to capture moments in their immediate essence, much as one might remember them. Shifting from scene to scene with all the seeming randomness of shuffling cards (the film is broken into chapters named after tarot cards, such as “The Moon,” “The Hanged Man” “The High Priestess” and so on, the import of which remains elusive on an initial viewing), Malick aims to reproduce on film the way we recall incidents, sensual encounters and emotional exchanges. He's not
interested in long, well-articulated dialogue exchanges but in experiences defined by physical contact, gestures, glances, light, colors, the tenor of voices, all of it overlaid by diverse music carefully chosen to express the dominant emotions of the characters. In his own idiosyncratic way, Malick comes as close as anyone does today to making silent films, in which relationships and emotional dynamics are expressed visually and with music rather than with talk.

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The approach has its pros and cons. What the film conveys most bracingly is the fleeting nature of human exchange, of how moments that passed between people and lasted only seconds can remain vividly embedded in memory forever. Such incidents are backdropped by a pictorially beautiful but conceptually simplistic contrast between the cold, hard surfaces of an urban environment and the rich beauty of unspoiled natural landscapes, the latter a longtime Malick preoccupation; he even provides a pretentiously cosmic context with a few outer space shots, which might have been better saved for the director's upcoming Voyage in Time IMAX venture.

The downside is a feeling of repetition and, over time, shallowness, as the sheer weight of evocative, ethereal images is not matched by complexity, depth or character development. Pointed evocations of emotional or otherwise memorable moments can create little pings of recognition and impact, but the wispy way they're generally represented makes the film feel lightweight rather than profound.

For such an image-dependent filmmaker, Malick can also be terribly literal-minded. After some quick glimpses of childhood and some gobbledygook about a pearl, a cup and a prince who enters a deep sleep, film world denizen Rick (Christian Bale) is awakened in his modernistic beach-adjacent condo by a strong earthquake, only to then hear his father (Brian Dennehy) reminding him, “My son, you're just like I am. You can't figure your life out.”

As if this were not enough thematic clarity, the first of the many women we see Rick cavorting with, the reed-like Della (Imogen Poots), rubs it in further. “We're not leading the lives we were meant for. We were meant for something else,” the racoon-eyed waif intones as she spins though an aquarium and a studio backlot.

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Rick may well be suffering from a spiritual/emotional/creative malaise, but he's obviously getting what many good-looking young men want to get out of Hollywood — lots of great-looking women. Any number of interludes of a few minutes each have Emmanuel Lubezki's exceptionally mobile, ever-repositioning camera making every effort to capture something meaningful but evanescent passing between Rick and his woman of the moment. And what a collection of women they are:
There's a physician ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a woman he may have gotten pregnant and wanted to marry (Natalie Portman), a lovely model (Freida Pinto) and a free-spirited good-times Aussie who certainly looks like the most fun (Teresa Palmer). There are plenty of others as well, especially at a lavish outdoor party scene where you can play spot-the-celebrity (oh, there's Ryan O'Neal, and let's have a word from Bruce Wagner).

Sandwiched in between Rick's female encounters are unsettling ones with his father and troubled brother (Wes Bentley) that stir up still-burning family embers, including a reference to another brother who died, echoing aspects of The Tree of Life. Although we don't hear him say much, Dad's gruff, critical nature would seem to lie at the root of his son's problems. Unlike most of the film, which is largely set on fashionably chic West Side locations, the men are often seen downtown on skid row, which doesn't do much other than to fill out the film's visual presentation of opposites: desert and sea, light and dark, love and hate, fertility and barrenness.

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Malick's most distinctive ambition here is his attempt to create an almost pointilistic portrait of a man by evoking acute moments of his past and present, and this sustains real interest for a while, as you wait to see how it all might come together. But as the film just keeps offering more of the same — beachside amblings, bedroom tussles, solo walks, musical swelling — it doesn't build or pay off with what it seems designed to do, which is to provide either a dramatic or philosophical apotheosis.

On a more mundane dramatic level, Malick's method, which allows for only slashes of dialogue to emerge through the voiceovers and music, keeps the characters, even the ever-present Rick, at a remove; he's a knot of confusion who reveals very little of what he thinks, feels or wants. Even though you're with him for two hours, you know precious little about him.

As always, Lubezki's work is rapturous. Either by luck or design, the Los Angeles skies in this film are always clear, graced with soft, pastel colorings and not a spec of smog. Shot in 2012, it features one curious scene with the late author Peter Matthiessen pontificating in a sumptuous home located in what looks like an impeccably manicured jungle.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival

Production: Waypoint Entertainment

Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Peter Matthiessen, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Cherry Jones, Patrick Whitesell, Rick Hess, Michael Wincott, Kevin Corrigan, Jason Clarke, Joel Kinneman, Clifton Collins Jr., Nick Offerman, Jamie Harris, Lawrence Jackson, Dane DeHaan, Shea Whigham, Ryan O'Neal, Bruce Wagner, Jocelin Donahue, Nicky Whelan, Fabio

Director: Terrence Malick

Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

Producers: Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green, Ken Kao

Executive producers: Glen Basner, Tanner Beard

Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Production designer: Jack Fisk

Costume designer: Jacqueline West

Editors: Geoffrey Richman, Keith Fraase, A.J. Edwards

Music: Hanan Townsend

Casting: Francine Maisler

118 minutes