Terrence Malick’s “Knight Of Cups” (2015)

This article is excerpted from “The Freefall Triptych”, Part 4 of our video essay series on Terrence Malick

Still basking in the recent glow of his Palme d’Or win for THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), director Terrence Malick had seemingly discovered a newfound burst of vitality by mining his own past for narrative inspiration.  2012’s TO THE WONDER had explored his time in Paris, as well as the former flames and complicated relationship dynamics that led to his current marriage— albeit heavily fictionalized and obscured through the veil of his lyrical, oblique aesthetic.  This allowed him to share the most intimate, personal details of his own life with his audiences, all while retaining his characteristic aura of enigmatic mystery. While TO THE WONDER didn’t quite perform to either critical or financial expectations, Malick nevertheless was compelled to say more to with this increasingly-experimental approach.  He turned his attentions to his time as a working screenwriter in Hollywood during the late 70’s, drawing from his experiences in the entertainment industry to fashion a story about success and wealth’s corrupting effect on one man’s soul, set against the hedonistic neon backdrop of modern-day Los Angeles.  Released to cinemas in 2015 under the title KNIGHT OF CUPS, Malick’s seventh feature film would continue his recent, polarizing strain of experimental dramas, and become his second entry in an ambitious triptych about restless exiles wandering an emotional desert in search of salvation or comfort.    

KNIGHT OF CUPS marks Malick’s fourth consecutive collaboration with producing partner Sarah Green, who is joined by fellow producers Nicolas Gonda and Ken Kao in bringing the director’s ambitious and amorphous vision to the screen.  Indicative of the rumor mill that frequently churns around any given project of his, there are widespread accounts that KNIGHT OF CUPS had no working script to speak of.  To hear cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki tell it, however, Malick did write a screenplay— albeit a 400-600 page behemoth that he actively encouraged his collaborators not to read (1).  If anything, the script was used by Malick alone as a deep well of inspiration from which to guide a totally improvisatory shoot, oftentimes dropping his actors into a location with no prep or direction, and simply reacting with his camera to the oblique dramatic alchemy that naturally occurred.  What results is a sprawling psychological adventure that paints Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and their surrounding deserts as a modern-day Babylon: a great, wealthy empire bursting at the seams with art and culture, and yet, perched perilously atop a cliff overlooking an abyss of vice and decadence. In his second performance for Malick after THE NEW WORLD, Christian Bale anchors KNIGHT OF CUPS as Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter whose success enables a hollow lifestyle of excess and emotional detachment.  Malick molds Rick very much in the same vein as Ben Affleck’s Neil from TO THE WONDER— a lost soul wandering the landscape, often seen from behind; reacting more than acting, compulsively drawn to the fleeting surface pleasures of life even as his hushed inner monologue decries their emptiness.  

Unlike most protagonists, Rick has no overarching goal; no clear objective to pursue.  In lieu of a conventional plot, Malick structures Rick’s story as a series of episodic vignettes, each one styled in the theme of a different tarot card and anchored by the several women in his life.  While one could be forgiven for assuming this conceit would play like a parade of sexual conquests, the actual effect is one of insightful illumination on Rick’s behalf. They may be defined by their relationship to Rick, but Malick makes abundantly clear that each figurehead has agency over her own destiny.  Their humanity makes Rick’s lack thereof all the more glaring. With her colorful punk stylings, Imogen Poots’ Della embodies the vitality and ideological purity of youth; she doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to conveying her disappointment in his moral failings. Freida Pinto’s Helen holds a thriving and glamorous career as a model— one that is too busy for Rick to be anything more to her than a presence on the periphery.  As the conflicted mistress, Elizabeth, Natalie Portman shades a nuanced portrait of a married woman grappling with the ramifications — and consequences — of her infidelity. Teresa Palmer’s Karen possesses an unquenchable zeal for life, finding fulfillment and empowerment in her hustle as a stripper. As Rick’s Palm Springs getaway companion, Isabel Lucas seems more connected to the elements than to him. Then there’s Cate Blanchett as Nancy, Rick’s weary ex-wife.  Still living in the hillside home they used to share, her melancholy, passionate heart never stopped loving him even as their marriage collapsed to rubble. She is perhaps Rick’s only grounding to the real world outside of the entertainment industry’s glitz and glamor, using her God-given talents as a nurse to serve the city’s deformed and diseased population.

In addition to its comprehensive overview of Rick’s relationship to women, KNIGHT OF CUPS spends a great deal of time exploring his relationship to his family.  Towards this end, Malick draws from his own family history as he had done previously with THE TREE OF LIFE.  Whereas that earlier work dwelled on Malick’s relationship to his brother Larry and the emotional fallout from his untimely passing, KNIGHT OF CUPS focuses on the particular dynamic he shared with his other brother, Chris, particularly as survivors of that loss.  Wes Bentley plays Barry, a highly fictionalized version of Chris who still rages after the death of their other brother, driven to volatile outbursts and substance abuse.  He’s now clean, but his time on the streets of Skid Row has made him a compassionate advocate for those still caught up in the grips of addiction (a development that neatly parallels the real-life Chris’ founding of a residential treatment center in Tulsa, Oklahoma).  The seasoned character actor Brian Dennehy hobbles about the film as Rick and Barry’s father, Joseph— a stubborn old man, full of regret, seemingly always at odds with his surviving sons and stuck in a perpetual state of grief over their broken family. Since his breakout success with BADLANDS, Malick has never had much of a problem attracting top-tier talent to his films; this leads to one of KNIGHT OF CUPS’ more-interesting peculiarities: the constant presence of highly-recognizable screen talent essentially parading around the frame as mere extras.  Most can be seen at a rowdy mansion party thrown by Antonio Banderas’ bacchanalian host, drawn to an open call for party attendees in the hopes of catching even the most fleeting of glimpses of the enigmatic filmmaker at work.  This sprawling sequence sees cameos from the likes of Joe Manganiello, Tom Lennon, Jason Clarke, Nick Kroll, and even Fabio, of all people. Still others, like Nick Offerman or Shea Whigham, make fleeting appearances in other sequences; minor background characters whose relationship to Rick is unclear but nevertheless serve to illuminate some small portion of Rick’s psyche.

KNIGHT OF CUPS’ visual presentation establishes itself as a continuation of the increasingly-abstract style set forth by TO THE WONDER, conveying Rick’s crisis of identity through a series of lyrical compositions and effervescent moments that evoke the nature of memory.  Malick and Lubezki’s ongoing collaboration has established a technical shorthand that had, at the time, sustained them through four consecutive projects.  Informally dubbed “The Dogma”, this list of visual guidelines gives the crew vital shape in an otherwise-improvisatory shoot. That said, the nature of “The Dogma” is such that it can be routinely disregarded when the moment calls for it— after all, why bother to draw up a list of rules if you have no intention of breaking them?  KNIGHT OF CUPS takes full advantage of this quirk, adopting an evocative blend of visual textures that include 35mm celluloid, digital GoPros, and the idiosyncratic Japanese toy camera that was previously used in TO THE WONDER.  These disparate elements mix together much better than they actually should, unified by a 2.35:1 aspect ratio and a consistent approach that favors the naturalism of magic hour, backlighting, and lens flares.  Also like TO THE WONDER, KNIGHT OF CUPS finds Malick and Lubezki subverting the conventional functions of wide lenses for narrative effect, employing them for close-ups to achieve a distorted, penetrative quality that nevertheless feels emotionally correct— as the edges of the frame curl back around us, it feels almost as if we are stepping beyond Rick’s personal space to intrude on his very thoughts.  A combination of handheld and steadicam-mounted movements continually find restless figures wandering blank, elemental landscapes like the desert, the ocean, or the city. A series of surreal narrative vignettes dealing with Rick’s father add a touch of impressionism to an otherwise-grounded flair, observing him washing his hands with blood, or delivering a cranky, rambling diatribe to an audience in a smoky theater.  The overall effect is one of effortless transition between objective reality and the evocative theatricality of Rick’s perception.

As Malick’s films have increasingly transitioned from the past to contemporary timelines, the nature of his working relationship with his longtime production designer, Jack Fisk, has also evolved.  Whereby their collaborations from BADLANDS to THE TREE OF LIFE revolved around recreating a certain historical period or look, their efforts in TO THE WONDER onward require little in the way of such effort.  Instead, Fisk adapts and redresses existing locations so that Malick can shoot freely in any direction he chooses.  Befitting a narrative about the inherent emptiness of Tinseltown, Malick, Fisk, and Lubezki frame the contents of the image so as to highlight the constant visual impression of artifice.  Several vignettes find Rick wandering empty studio lots, taking in the fake facades and painted skies with only his agents and the occasional costumed extra to keep him company. The same could be said of the opulent hilltop mansions filled with extravagant furnishings but devoid of people to use them, or even the entirety of Las Vegas itself— a glittering sprawl of plastic and silicone fakery masquerading as class and sophistication.  If Lubezki’s two-dimensional frame cannot physically penetrate the surface of Rick’s counterfeit lifestyle, then Malick’s signature approach to editing becomes the third-dimensional tool that can expose this artifice. TO THE WONDER’s AJ Edwards, Keith Fraase and Mark Yoshikawa join newcomer Geoffrey Richman to imbue narrative meaning to the mountains of footage accumulated during production, stringing it all together with hushed, ruminative voiceovers delivered by Rick and others in Malik’s “multiple-streams of consciousness” style.  As if Lubezki’s achingly beautiful work wasn’t enough to work with, Malick’s editors also implement a variety of found footage like satellite shots of auroras over the Earth, or edgy black-and-white video installations from artists Quentin Jones (1), giving the film an added degree of grandeur and sophistication.  The episodic nature of the story lends itself to a series of intertitles structured around various tarot cards that imbue KNIGHT OF CUPS’ title with its narrative significance.  The film’s young composer, Hanan Townshend, reinforces this conceit with a subdued original score that deals in mysterious and mystical notes. This being a Malick project, however, Townshend’s work takes a back seat to a selection of pre-recorded tracks from the classical and religious genres, in addition to a few garage-rock needledrops that infuse the soundtrack’s solemn grandeur with a punk edge that’s totally new to Malick’s artistic palette.  Wojciech Kilar’s “Exodus” becomes a recurring theme, its medieval flavor positioning Rick as some kind of noble knight on a quest or crusade for the ultimate artifact: a universal, spiritual truth that binds together all of creation in cosmic harmony.

As Malick’s second entry in his triptych of experimental tone poems, KNIGHT OF CUPS carves out similar thematic territory covered in TO THE WONDER and subsequently once more with 2017’s SONG TO SONG.  These themes — the loss of innocence, the spirituality of nature, and the built environment’s ability to alienate instead of shelter — also appear frequently throughout Malick’s previous films, but the Los Angeles setting of KNIGHT OF CUPS allows for particularly evocative twists on the formula.  Biblical allusions abound throughout Malick’s work, oftentimes framing his narratives with a Genesis-style template wherein his characters commit some mortal sin and are cast from the Garden to wander an existential desert.  KNIGHT OF CUPS, however, models its chronicle of innocence lost after the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The film loosely follows the trajectory of this biblical story, detailed in the Gospel of Luke as a cautionary tale about the perils of vice and temptation as enabled by wealth, ultimately ending with the man forced to return home penniless but nevertheless embraced by his father.  We are told that Rick is a screenwriter, and a successful one to boot, but Malick never shows him at work— beyond a few dispiriting encounters with his agents and a script doctoring session he spends staring out the window. This is an active, important decision on Malick’s part: to better convey how Rick has been undone by the side effects of his success.  Rather than find fulfillment in his writing, he seeks to fill his personal void with booze-soaked sex parties and aimless joy rides around town. Each Dionysian encounter seems to sucks more and more vitality from his frame, causing him to increasingly resemble the forgotten addicts on Skid Row that once seemed to be another planet apart from his world of excess.  

Much like the story of The Prodigal Son is a parable for God’s unconditional love, Rick’s ultimate redemption lies in his return to a fostering and compassionate entity— namely, nature. One might think the story and setting of KNIGHT OF CUPS wouldn’t necessarily lend itself to Malick’s longtime exploration of spirituality and creation’s inherent divinity, but his artistic sensitivity to the flow of the world around him makes for unplanned — yet no less evocative — insights into mankind’s interaction with environments both natural and manmade.  Indeed, Rick can only seem to find himself when he gets away from the glare of urban life. Biblical allusions to “wandering the desert” aside, it’s no accident that the film’s conclusion occurs in Palm Springs— a starkly beautiful, minimalist landscape that offers a blank canvas for one’s reinvention. Far removed from gridlocked traffic, smog, and light pollution, the desert offers not only clarity and peace, but also a kind of forgiveness or mercy.  Here, Rick can begin to imagine a different life for himself: a simpler, more fulfilling one where the pleasures of wealth and flesh are supplanted by the rapture of creation’s effervescent beauty. A seemingly-random earthquake that happens early on in the film bookends this conceit, and while insurance companies might literally call it an “act of God”, its occurrence within the context of Malick’s spiritual meditations becomes KNIGHT OF CUPS’ de facto inciting event— a profound awakening that shakes Rick from his bacchanalian status quo. Furthermore, Malick’s use of tarot card imagery and framing devices gives this spiritual character a mystical and exotic quality, enriching and diversifying a paradigm that otherwise draws primarily from Judeo-Christian iconography and traditions.

Like THE TREE OF LIFE and TO THE WONDER before it, Malick uses the architecture of his many locations to amplify Rick’s sense of detachment and alienation.  KNIGHT OF CUPS renders Los Angeles as a forest or jungle of imposing monoliths, their modern silhouettes beckoning toward a progressive future of ever-increasing human achievement. And yet, they are also oppressive structures, blocking life-giving sunlight while continually reminding us of our cosmic insignificance.  Malick hammers home this sense of environmental hostility with frequent cutaway shots to distant planes and helicopters. Deliberately evocative of the cutaways to wildlife in his previous work, these false birds are rendered in metal & gasoline instead of flesh & blood, dangling the promise of freedom even as their artificial makeup reinforces our own entrapment.  Even Rick’s spartan condo is a form of prison, eschewing the creature comforts of home in order to become the physical embodiment of his hollow lifestyle. It’s very telling that Malick includes a vignette of Rick coming home to find armed robbers rooting through his material possessions, only to leave with nothing but utter bewilderment when they decide there isn’t anything worth taking from this supposedly “wealthy” person.  Rick’s condo provides only his most essential need for shelter, signaling a profound failing to integrate himself more fully with his environment and ensuring his perpetual alienation from it.

After two long years in the editorial suite (1), Malick premiered KNIGHT OF CUPS in competition at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.  The film followed the general trajectory of TO THE WONDER’s reception, earning mixed reviews from critics and disappointing ticket sales from audiences.  It’s something of a miracle that the film even saw a release at all, given the fact that it was distributed by Broad Green Entertainment— an upstart outfit created by Hollywood outsiders and dedicated to the acquisition of risky arthouse films.  Now since shuttered, the company would release only a handful of films during its very short existence, two of them being Malick’s subsequent efforts, VOYAGE OF TIME and SONG TO SONG.  KNIGHT OF CUPS’ lackluster reception suggested that the polarizing nature of Malick’s increasingly-experimental aesthetic had seemingly reached the limits of audiences’ tolerance— his artistic vitality atrophying to diminishing returns.  Indeed, to hear some critics tell it, the “Malick Mystique” seemed dispelled entirely, replaced by that of an aging filmmaker turning to indulgent, pretentious curios with little if any relevance to contemporary cinema. What the naysayers could not see at the time, however, was that KNIGHT OF CUPS was only one part of a larger whole; one episode in a sprawling multi-part epic about the existential crisis of contemporary civilization.

That isn’t to say that the film holds no value on its own; in fact, KNIGHT OF CUPS stands as our clearest window yet into the “why” of Malick’s unique mission as an artist.  If Rick is a narrative stand-in for Malick (and he most definitely is), then Malick’s distaste for Hollywood and the studio system becomes immediately palpable.  In Rick, we might see Malick as he was in the late 70’s following DAYS OF HEAVEN’s success: still young and impressionable, on the verge of being co-opted by the commercial agenda of a massive studio machine.  We can see someone who has been set emotionally adrift by his own success; someone who, at the peak of his talents, yearns to escape entirely.  In its own oblique way, KNIGHT OF CUPS gives us the “why” for Malick’s move to Paris and his subsequent two-decade hiatus.  At the same time, it also suggests an explanation for his dogged insistence on a polarizing artistic style— it gives Malick the energy to keep pushing, to keep exploring new realms of cinematic expression.  His is a dangerous quest; the further out he ventures, the higher his risk becomes. Malick’s artistic success comes with the very real possibility that he may never get to make another film again, and one day he may reach the great unknown regions of cinematic expression only to find that his luck has finally run out.  Until that day comes, his ability to create films like KNIGHT OF CUPS remains as something of a miracle.  Malick’s career increasingly stands as a rebuke to the conventions of commercial filmmaking, helping us to realize that a century of effort has only begun to scratch the surface of cinema’s potential.

KNIGHT OF CUPS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Broad Green Entertainment.


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Written by: Terrence Malick

Produced by: Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda, Ken Kao

Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Production Designer: Jack Fisk

Edited by: AJ Edwards, Keith Fraase, Geoffrey Richman, Mark Yoshikawa

Music by: Hanan Townshend