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It is always difficult to understand the true meaning of a Terrence Malick film. There are beauties to behold with nearly every shot, but the deeper sense can often fall by the wayside, or get lost in the varying camera angles and blending colors. Most would call what Malick does behind the camera a form of expressive art rather than a traditional film. Knight of Cups has its confident differences from his other work, but in the end it remains true to the integrity and manifestation that we have come to expect from this filmmaker. Malick takes us into the life of a Los Angeles screenwriter as we plunge into the confusing blend of pleasure and turmoil that can surround the glamorous lifestyle. The film serves as a morose love letter to the Hollywood world, and the agonies that can lie beneath the surface. Like nearly every installment of Malick’s work, Knight of Cups is confusing, odd, and hard to follow. Yet there are undoubtedly breathtaking moments which force contemplation.

Underneath the ever-present narration of this film, is a disheveled-looking Christian Bale wandering along a barren desert landscape gazing into the sky. The narration shares an excerpt from Pilgrim’s Progress, which tells us of a Knight from the East who is sent West by his father, The King, in search of a wonderful pearl. On his journey, the Knight drinks from a fateful cup, which causes him to lose his memory. Bale is the modern day representation of that Knight. He is man enraptured by the glitz and glamour of his industry, and as a result, he has lost the real man inside of him. We follow Bale’s character, Rick, through this visual excursion and see the hollow presence of a seemingly soulless man. His career takes him to extravagant pool parties, strip clubs, and art shows, but his emotional attendance is not matched by the physical. Malick avoids taking us into any of the turning gears of the industry explored, and instead focuses solely on the internal struggles of man. Where there is turbulence in filmmaking, the concentration remains on spirituality and the fractures existing between people. Rick uses narration as his darling source of communication to tell us, “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t know.”

This shell of a human sprawls though life showing the facets that propel him forward, if not by force, then by default. Malick presents the parallels of Rick’s life to Tarot Cards, as he is represented by the Knight of Cups. We learn that Rick is one of three brothers, one of whom died tragically at a young age and is referred to as “The Hanged Man.” His living brother, played by Wes Bentley, struggles with the loss of their sibling through outbursts of rage and volatility, mostly directed towards their downtrodden father (Brian Dennehy). Dennehy uses narration to project his concern with the way Rick is living his life. He is proud of his son’s achievements, but can see the toll that the lifestyle has taken on him. The loss of a sibling, wild success, and an indulgent way of living are visibly breaking Rick down. It is all his father can do but try to lead him back to the light. Malick uses family as possibly the only genuine force still flowing in Rick’s veins.

The heartbeat of this Knight lives with the women coming in and out of his life. Throughout the film, we continue coming back to the Rick’s now ex-wife, Nancy, played by Cate Blanchett. There is a crestfallen distance between Nancy and Rick, one that has undoubtedly sprouted as a result of Rick’s apathetic existence. Malick provides us with the uncommon service of glimpsing into Nancy’s caring soul as she works as a rehabilitation doctor. Her nurturing spirit becomes the life that has left Rick, and will likely never come back to him. Amidst the flashbacks to Blanchett’s character, we see Bale with a revolving door of listless women. He gallivants through life with these beauties, wandering beaches and attending Las Vegas parties awash with naked women. He eventually stumbles upon a married woman, portrayed by Natalie Portman. They begin their tryst until Portman’s character finds out she is pregnant and is stricken with the grief of not knowing who the father is.

The unrest of Rick’s life comes crashing down to the point where there is no choice but to seek guidance. Malick provides us with an uncharacteristically clear moment of healing for our Knight of Cups. When Rick is drowning in the grotesque and haunting reality that life can become, he is recued by the prayers and guidance of his father. Malick even presents us with a priest to shepherd Rick back towards the light. Like most of, if not all, of his former work, Malick’s message is strongly Christian in meaning and tone. Rick’s story, in many ways, echoes that of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A wayward boy who is called back to the graces by his wise father. While this can be seen as contrite, it also saves the film from sliding into an unyielding dark place with no hope of redemption. It is curious to see such a familiar world portrayed by this writer/director, and forces the audience to consider the personal feelings, if not worries, that lie inside ourselves. Malick plunges into the temptress that can be the Hollywood lifestyle to expose its seductive and haunting shadows. His use of dazzling colors and music brings the city of Los Angeles to life in ways that only this director could do. Regardless of the message of his films, his use of angles, varying lenses, and settings never cease to bring out true beauty and a pure meaning of art. After viewing Malick’s films, you may not understand what you have observed, but you will not forget what you have seen.


Directed By: Terrence Malick

Produced By: Nicholas Gonda, Sarah Green, Kenneth Kao

Written By: Terrence Malick

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

Distributed By: FilmNation, Broad Green Pictures, Waypoint Entertainment

Release Date: March 4, 2016

Run Time: 118 min

Rating: R


About The Author

Contributing Writer

Dan graduated from Babson College with a BS in Marketing and Business Management. Since graduating from college, he has moved to Los Angeles where he works as a writer and actor. Dan is working on numerous screen plays and shorts for both TV and film. Some of my work can be seen on Funny Or Die.