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New Release Review - KNIGHT OF CUPS

A Hollywood screenwriter wanders the Californian landscape in an existential fugue.





Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Terrence Malick

Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Isabel Lucas, Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots



Malick offers us so much stunning imagery here - an astronaut's view of the earth bathed in the emerald light of the aurora borealis and a multi-storey car showroom at night, standing out in the LA night like a barroom aquarium - that even if you fail to engage with his film's theme, there should be enough eye candy on display to keep anyone remotely interested in cinema dazzled for two hours.



Much as we might hate to admit it, we all need a wise old authority figure to interrupt our fugue states every now and then, someone to redirect our paths. For the monotheists it's the priest, the rabbi, the imam. For the secular cinephile it's artists like Terrence Malick. His latest, Knight of Cups, is filled with lecturing, elderly authority figures - the protagonist's firm yet fragile father, played by Brian Dennehy; Armin Mueller Stahl's priest; an unidentified character who speaks lovingly of his redemptive time in a monastery; God/Mother Nature him/herself - but ultimately it's Malick delivering the lecture, like a grandfather taking you to the woods and teaching you the names of the trees, and it's one I needed and appreciated.


Straying further into the territory of Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera) and Godfrey Reggio (Koyaanisqatsi) with each successive work, Malick delivers what will likely be his most inaccessible work here. The overwhelmingly negative reviews certainly suggest so, though in many cases this can be put down to an appliance of the metrics of prose to what is essentially a poem.

Malick presents us with a protagonist - Christian Bale's Hollywood screenwriter, Rick - who will either be viewed as a paper thin caricature of white male entitlement or a cypher-like spirit guide, depending on your willingness to indulge the filmmaker. It's easy to dismiss Rick as someone who just needs to 'get over it' and enjoy his life of opulence and impossibly beautiful lovers, but that's a dangerous and insensitive idea that borders on victim blaming; depression doesn't check its victims' bank balances. Neither Rick or Malick are asking for our sympathy, merely our indulgence.


Rick never explicitly verbalises the cause of his disillusion, but we assume he's tired of writing soulless blockbusters and never getting the chance to write anything he considers worthwhile. He's a neon sign in the town darkness forgot. He keeps the company of many women (Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, to name a few), but fails to connect with any of them. The brilliance of Malick makes snogging Natalie Portman seem like a genuinely empty experience.

"You're not looking for love, merely a love experience," one of Rick's lovers tells him. Rick seems bound by artifice. We see him stroll contentedly through the fake city streets of a studio backlot and the tacky Vegas recreation of European capitals. He takes his lovers to places where man and nature buttress one another, Venice Beach, the end of the runway at LAX. When he wanders into the desert he becomes truly lost, his face as confused as a newborn.


Malick offers us so much stunning imagery here - an astronaut's view of the earth bathed in the emerald light of the aurora borealis and a multi-storey car showroom at night, standing out in the LA night like a barroom aquarium, are two of the highlights - that even if you fail to engage with his film's theme, there should be enough eye candy on display to keep anyone remotely interested in cinema dazzled for two hours. I could have watched it all day.

While he's strayed from mainstream acceptance and critical appreciation, Malick is in the most profound and prolific period of his enigmatic career with this and its two predecessors, To the Wonder and The Tree of Life. Like life itself, I wouldn't dare to suggest what any of Malick's work means, but I know how it makes me feel, and I hope I can continue to enjoy it for a long, long time.
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