Knight of Cups (2015)


There’s another poster for this film which emphasises the tarot dimension (I finally like the title), as well as its religiosity and the central image of palm trees. I think this one better captures what the film is actually like.

Terrance Malick effectively takes off from everyone’s second least-favourite bit in The Tree of Life: Sean Penn wandering around Austin, eyes broodingly upturned towards the glass and girders around him.

The initiative is essentially similar: an attempt to reconnect with a point in the past at which choices were made, paths were taken (unfortunately these are phrases repeated explicitly and quite frequently in the script here) which led us to a troubled and misguided present. The important difference is character – the keystone which, KoC now makes me think, held ToL together like a mathematician’s bridge (I’m still gonna check To The Wonder for this reason). Christian Bale’s Rick has gravity in the way a vacuum does: other people are briefly pulled into his orbit, whispering admonishments or temptations to him as they pass by, before being flung out of the film’s universe. I think this connects to the lack of plot here. The momentary images which constitute ToL accrete into a developmental narrative, which at least helps us situate SP’s heel-kicking torpor at the end of a timeline. ‘Timeline’ is an appropriate word here, too, but unfortunately more in the social media sense. R is a man constituted entirely by what surrounds him, much in the same way that an Instagram profile attempts to construct a ‘self’ through views and objects.

The result is a flattened and dissolute consistency. Take any ten minutes of KoC and swap it with any other ten minutes and no-one would notice. Tarot-themed intertitles are insignificant (the section Freedom follows Death without much inconsistency), as are a procession of lovers who behave differently (Cate Blanchett is probably the standout as an incisive ex-wife) but leave equally faint imprints on the narrative.

Not much to report stylistically, besides excursions into handheld footage which at points near the beginning reminded me of the glowing patchwork of Jarman’s The Garden. Some amusing musical moments: extracts from Burial’s Kindred EP in a neon strip-club are topped for lack of self-awareness by a sample from Bisophere’s ‘Hyperborea’. Too many levels removed from the Twin Peaks general.

KoC doesn’t hold up well on the remaining trembling leg: its worldview. I don’t mind the empathetic dinosaur in ToL but the equally notorious equivalent here – Imogen Poots bestowing a flower upon a sleeping homeless man – is pretty embarrassing. It’s hard to distinguish between criticism of opulence and excavations of uncanny, perhaps unintended beauty inside that opulence (best examples are the sub-Koyaanisqatsi tableaux and elegance in the human form, particularly the tumbling acrobats at a depressing Las Vegas party). This usually isn’t helped by the continuous Lubezki-swooping, which often gives the impression of oceanic exploration but also the interiors of cathedrals (especially when covering internal architecture), which ties in with the frequent baptismal water imagery, the Bunyan references, the flimsy concluding remarks from a priest about suffering and transcendence, etc. It’s not often that I’ve concluded a film’s characters could use a little more old-time religion.

I read that SP was very annoyed at how ToL turned out because he thought the original script (which feature his character more prominently) was trimmed beyond recognition. The KoC script really is pretty dire – repetitive, vapid, mawkish, mumbled. Here are a few egregious gems:

Treat this world the way it deserves: no principles, only circumstances.

Living my life is like playing Call of Duty on easy – I just fuck shit up!

No-one cares about reality any more.

Real life is so hard to find. Where is it? How do you get there?

Shoutout also to the monologue about “taking drugs once” and consequently “seeing the world in a new way”, even “know[ing] more about the world than other people.” Feathers under armpits.

TM deserves credit for honing a very singular style and making apparently urgent and principled films. I don’t think we needed this contribution. ToL was a successful experiment; this was a failed one.



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