Review: Knight of Cups

Words by: Jack Dawson

I have to admit, Knight of Cups has made me feel more a part of the film critic community than any other film I’ve seen recently. Because, as is traditional with a Terrence Malick film, I have unwittingly participated in the decades long tradition of forming an extreme opinion about his latest work. True to his nature Malick has left critics polarised; in fact, with this film, there is an evident and critical community split almost perfectly down the middle.

So, is this movie good or not? After having seen the film and sitting on it for a couple of days I am not convinced that I saw a very good film. In fact I think I saw a pretentious slog through a boring story which has some pretty cinematography and some portentous imagery to its name.

This is usually where I summarise the plot of the film. I’m not sure I’m really up to the task this time because there are about three different narrative threads all woven together, involving pilgrimages, journeys of self-discovery, and one man’s search for answers in the body cavities of every nubile woman in the greater Los Angeles area. The latter of these is the most grounded, so I’ll stick with that.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before; a photogenic man who works in Hollywood (it’s never specified what he does) finds himself a slave of the system, addicted to success and feeling unfulfilled in life. So instead of doing something proactive or meaningful he farts about Hollywood and has numerous playful romances with several young women who exist to help him discover himself.  And yes, that is also the plot to approximately two billion student films, and more than a few stage plays as well.

The odd thing is, despite the vitriol that I have, and will, lavish upon this film, I actually didn’t mind watching it. It’s a beautiful looking film for one thing, and there’s something dreamlike about the overlapping narration and the fact that Christian Bale never gets to say a word. You get the feeling of time passing in a very immediate sense, and the transition from dreamlike surrealism to grounded reality is so seamless that it’s almost imperceptible. And if you can recognise even half of the references to Tarot readings and Religious Esoterica, you’ll appreciate the references and the depth they had to what is otherwise a shallow story.

But the story is a problem. What is especially baffling is how it seems to play out as a parody of the kind of navel-gazing, pretentious claptrap that so many independent projects (especially ‘personal stories’) become. I’d say that the female characters are insultingly shallow, but in fairness I’m not sure any of the characters in this film are particularly complex, especially the protagonist. As I mentioned above, Christian Bale never speaks a line except for the occasional bit of narration, and otherwise he just breezes through life, suffering only the occasional bout of narcolepsy. That’s probably the intent, since he is meant to be a riff on a character who simply doesn’t belong and needs to take some kind of proactive measure in his life.

That character is the Knight of Cups. According to the film, the Knight of Cups was sent from the East by his father the King to find a beautiful pearl, before drinking a substance that sent the Knight of Cups into a deep slumber. I have no idea whether that’s an actual story but it’s not a bad framing device, albeit a rather on the nose way to bring about personal enlightenment. But the film invests a little too heavily in this kind of intertextuality, to the point where I didn’t recognise most of the references, which were essential to understanding the story. For example, the film is divided into chapters which are named after several cards from the Major Arcana of the traditional Tarot Card set. While I recognised the names, I had no idea what these cards signified.

To be perfectly honest, by the end of the film I was lost. I had no idea what was going on, if the protagonist had found any kind of enlightenment, or whether the whole thing was just a wash. And honestly, I’m not sure I even care about the answer.

In my last review I talked about how The Lobster was a little difficult to read, which made me wonder whether it was a good film in spite of its accomplished visuals. After having watched Knight of Cups I am considerably more well-disposed towards The Lobster. Perhaps I’ve missed the point of Knight of Cups, maybe with some extra work I could truly appreciate its brilliance, and maybe in years to come I’ll look back on the divisive reviews of the film and grimace at my own attempts.

But for now, I’m recommending you to give this one a miss.