Sunday, March 20, 2016

Knight of Cups

Written and directed by Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups is the story of the troubled life of a Hollywood screenwriter who goes on a personal journey to find live and self-discovery during his trip to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Rumored to be part of an informal trilogy with The Tree of Life and To the Wonder as the films are semi-biographical stories on Malick’s own life. The film is partially inspired by the Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Process and the passages Hymn of the Pearl and Acts of Thomas as they’re featured in a film that plays into a man trying to find his own existence in a decadent world. Starring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Wes Bentley, Imogen Poots, Antonio Banderas, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Brian Dennehy, and the voice of Ben Kingsley. Knight of Cups is a rapturous and exhilarating film from Terrence Malick.

Surrounding himself in Los Angeles and the world of Hollywood, the film revolves around a screenwriter coping with himself and struggles as he surrounds himself with different women while dealing with issues in his family including his father. It’s a film that doesn’t really have much of a plot nor a traditional narrative structure as it is largely loose in its storytelling structure where it’s largely based on the Knight of Cups tarot cards as each card represents a part of the journey that film’s protagonist Rick (Christian Bale) takes. Along the way, he deals with loss but also regret into things in his past while being aware of the environment he’s in that is filled with temptation, immorality, and decadence. In the course of the film, there are a lot of voice-over narration not just from Rick but also the many characters who are part of his life either temporarily or permanently while there is also this mysterious voice by an unseen character (Ben Kingsley) who recites passages and texts that relate to these tarot cards.

The lack of a conventional screenplay does allow its writer/director Terrence Malick to not just take on some major risks of what he would do as a storyteller. He would also go very deep into a world that might seem disconnected from the real world but also display that sense of disconnect as it relates to the reality that is encountered. Shot largely in Los Angeles as well as some scenes shot in Las Vegas, the Californian/Nevada deserts, and other parts of the American Midwest including St. Louis. It is a film that showcases that sense of conflict in a man who is embarking on this journey of self-discovery where he ventures into all sorts of things with different kinds of people. Among them are representations in the themes of the tarot cards in the form of Rick’s many different lovers in Della (Imogen Poot), a model named Helen (Freida Pinto), a spirited stripper named Karen (Teresa Palmer), a mysterious young woman named Isabel (Isabel Lucas), his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), and a former lover in Elizabeth (Natalie Portman).

The usage of wide and medium shots for many of the film’s locations as well as close-ups for some of the intimate moments are very potent in their imagery while Malick’s usage of hand-held cameras in its mixture of 35mm film and digital just add to the sense of beauty of these images. Yet, there is so much more as it play into something that is very off-kilter as it relates to Rick’s own sense of uncertainty, loss, and self-discovery where the camera sort of acts as this unknown being watching over him. Plus, the narration acts as that sense of internal conflict within Rick who is yearning for some meaning in his life but is tempted by things such as money, beautiful women, and all of these things. The scenes involving Rick’s brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and their father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) show that sense of conflict that looms over Rick as well as loss where the narration reveal that they’re all suffering with Barry venturing into a self-destructive path that claimed the life of his brother.

Malick’s usage of handheld cameras do have this very evocative feel to the way everything is filmed while he also plays with time-lapse imagery. While it largely a style that is very experimental and certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It plays into something that does feel very personal where Malick is showing a world that he was a part of but one that showcases that struggle from having it all but also leaving a world where things were simpler. Adding to that air of simplicity is specter of spirituality as it relates to the character of Isabel, some of Helen’s private activities, and what Malick shows in Los Angeles and Las Vegas as it play into something is calling into Rick in his own personal journey and in the words of this unseen narrator. Overall, Malick creates an intoxicating yet enchanting film about a man’s personal journey of self-discovery through the chaotic world of Hollywood.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does spectacular work with the film‘s very naturalistic cinematography to play with the many looks of the locations in the day as well as the scenes set at the home of this amoral millionaire along with some dazzling images of scenes set at night including a strip-club and the scenes set in Las Vegas which is so gorgeous to look at as it‘s one of the highlights of the film. Editors Mark Yoshikawa, Geoffrey Richman, Keith Fraase, and A.J. Edwards do brilliant work with the editing with its usage of jump-cuts and disparate cutting montages to play into sense of wonderment that occurs throughout the film as well as some abrupt cuts to help structuralize the film. Production designer Jack Fisk, with set decorator Beauchamp Fontaine and art director Ruth De Jong, does amazing work with the some of the interiors in the homes that Rick encounters including a mansion in its dining room along with the look of the strip club with its neon lights.

Costume designer Jacqueline West does excellent work with the clothes that many of the characters wear including the Armani suits that Rick wears and some of the stylish dresses that many of the women in the film wear. Visual effects supervisor Jamison Scott Goei does fantastic work with the film‘s lone visual effects sequence as it relates into the mysterious elements of the universe described in one of Rick‘s voice-over narrations. Sound designers Joel Dougherty and Will Patterson do incredible work with the sound in the way much of the voice-over narrations as well as the sounds of the cities and locations mix without overwhelming each other along with some textures into the parties and such as it add so much to the world that Rick is being tempted by. The film’s music by Hanan Townshend is superb for its classical-based score with its serene string arrangements and low-key percussions while music supervisor Lauren Marie Mikus creates a soundtrack filled with classical pieces as well as contemporary music where the latter play into the parties scenes and what is playing on Rick’s car.

The casting by Francine Maisler and Lauren Grey is phenomenal as it features appearances from Joe Manganiello, Ryan O’Neal, Fabio, Danny Strong, Beau Garrett, Nick Kroll, Nicky Whelan, Jelly Howie, and Katia Winter as themselves appearing in Hollywood parties. Other notable small appearances include Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Jason Clarke, Joel Kinnaman, Peter Matthiesson, and Clifton Collins Jr. as colleagues of Rick who are part of that world as well as appearances from Nick Offerman, Michael Wincott, and Shea Whigham in small roles as Hollywood business personalities, Dane DeHaan as a tarot reader’s son, Jamie Harris and Lawrence Jackson as a couple of burglars, Patrick Whitesell and Rick Hess as a couple of agents, Cherry Jones as a relative of Rick’s, and Armin Mueller-Stahl as a priest who provides Rick some guidance into his own sense of doubt. The voice of Ben Kingsley as this unseen figure is superb for the sense of mystique that looms over the film as well as providing a sense of spiritual context into Rick’s journey.

Imogen Poots is fantastic as this rebellious fling of Rick’s in Della who asks Rick questions about his faithfulness and direction in life while Teresa Palmer is excellent as this stripper named Karen who entrances Rick as she accompanies him to Las Vegas. Freida Pinto is wonderful as the model Helen that Rick meets at a party as he briefly goes out with her while being intrigued by what she does at her home while Isabel Lucas is terrific as this innocent and playful young woman who is interpreted as this angelic figure that helps him find his way home. Wes Bentley is brilliant as Rick’s brother Barry as a man accompanying Rick throughout Los Angeles as he copes with his own issues as well as those relating to their father. Brian Dennehy is amazing as Rick and Barry’s father Joseph who deals with aging and being phased out while providing some somber narration as it relates to much of the text and legends of the tarot cards that would help guide Rick in his journey.

Antonio Banderas is incredible as a Hollywood playboy named Tonio as a man that represents all forms of temptation and immorality as someone that has a lust for life, excess, and women as he is sort of a comical figure in the film but also that representation of what Rick could be. Natalie Portman is radiant as Elizabeth as a former lover of Rick whom he loved dearly as she is seen as someone that could help find redemption for him as well as provide a link into what he could have if he chose the right path. Cate Blanchett is remarkable as Nancy as Rick’s former wife who devotes her time helping people as a physician as she copes with the love they had lost as well as the fact that there’s still feelings for one another as she is a representation of what he had and later gave up. Finally, there’s Christian Bale in a tremendous performance as Rick as a Hollywood screenwriter lost in the world of decadence and temptation as he copes with loss, guilt, and uncertainty where Bale doesn’t say a lot in the film but say a lot in his voice-over work where he would display that anguish and conflict of a man trying to find himself in his own personal journey of self-discovery.

Knight of Cups is a phenomenal film from Terrence Malick. Largely in part to its ensemble cast, a compelling premise, gorgeous visuals, and intoxicating music. It’s a film that is definitely challenging while not being something for everyone due to the fact that is told in a very unconventional form. Even as it displays some big questions about the world of temptation, loss, and life itself in ways that is very personal in the hands of its creator. In the end, Knight of Cups is a sensational film from Terrence Malick.

Terrence Malick Films: Badlands - Days of Heaven - The Thin Red Line - The New World - Tree of Life - To the Wonder - Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience - (Voyage of Time: Life's Journey) - Song to Song - A Hidden Life - (The Way of the Wind)

© thevoid99 2016


Brittani Burnham said...

Malick's films always sound great on paper, then they disappoint me when I actually watch them. It's a curse lol. Great review! I'm glad you liked it.

thevoid99 said...

Well, I don't think they're easy to digest the first time around as my recent viewing of To the Wonder made me realize that there was a lot more in the film that I missed the first time around. I hope to see this again though I don't think he's going to change with his next two films which I'm sure will get similar reactions as this one and To the Wonder. It's really just out there but also has a lot to say about us and the world itself.

ruth said...

I totally agree w/ Brittani. This film sounded so good on paper, and the trailer really sucked me in. Alas, I didn't get as much from it as you did Steven. But wow, what a beautifully-written review. I didn't know this was part of an informal trilogy, I might have to check out To The Wonder as being a completist, I'm curious to see the connection of all three.

thevoid99 said...

If you plan on watching To the Wonder, I'd suggest try and watching it more than once. The reasons I do believe that this film along with To the Wonder and The Tree of Life are part of this trilogy is because they're all based on aspects in Malick's personal life. There was this famous article by Peter Biskind in 1999 for Vanity Fair that did some great research on Malick's time in Hollywood and the years he spent in seclusion for twenty years. It's not easy to find and I think Indiewire has some text on the article.

I do understand why it didn't work for you and I get it. His films aren't for everyone as casual audiences I think are too used to traditional narrative structure of point A to point B. I think Malick is at a point right now where he doesn't need that anymore and is just going by gut instinct and what he's feeling at the moment. I bet you that you won't like his next film as well.

Anonymous said...

Great review! I've been on the fence about watching this, largely because life has been a little bit chaotic, so I've been sticking with relatively casual cinematic fare. I would like to watch this, though, along with Tree of Life and To the Wonder, which I haven't seen yet.

thevoid99 said...

@Stephanie Marshall Ward-I would start with The Tree of Life and then To the Wonder while I would also suggest watching The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky as it would give you an idea of what Malick is going for from a narrative standpoint. These aren't easy films to be engaged by as they don't play by the rules as I think it's more about visuals and what does the visual say.

Anonymous said...

This one is out in theatres here this weekend, but I just don't really have to be in the right frame of mind!!

thevoid99 said... don't think it's about the right frame of mind but rather the idea of just being challenged and watch something that many casual filmgoers aren't used to seeing. That's part of the fun of going to see his films.

Alex Withrow said...

Yep, we agree all the way here. I had such an emotional experience watching this film. It really understands depression and emotional anguish. Great, great review my friend.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex Withrow-It says a lot in the film as I was able to relate to not just some of Rick's anguish but I could relate to that confusion as I don't know how I would deal with myself in these parties and situations.