Pin It
Knight of Cups
Christian Bale in Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups"

Five reactions you could have to Knight of Cups

Whether you worship at the altar of Malick or simply don’t get why the stripper wears clogs, you’ll feel something about his latest

Terrence Malick has done it again – created a film so divisive audiences will be arguing about it for the rest of the year. Here are a few of the myriad reactions you might have to Knight of Cups, which had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival this week, and stars Christian Bale as a confounded screenwriter (yep, it’s kind of meta) struggling to make sense of the decadent void he lives in and a string of physically attractive hook-ups.


Malick’s brand of cinema – at least, the kind he got into with 2011’s The Tree of Life and repeated with To the Wonder (2012) – is grandiosely spiritual, glittering and image-drenched. Among his converts, it tends to evoke nothing less than gaping-mouthed, gushing awe, as if god Himself was being channelled through the director. Background info about conflicted playboy Rick and the women wafting through his life (Natalie Portman plays one) is short, but as they run giggling into the surf with their clothes on or gaze off across desertscapes, if their existential yearning rings true enough for you, those banal logistics that plague the plebeian world (Does he not have to go to work? Why is that stripper wearing clogs?) will be rendered unimportant.


If you’re left wondering what the hell all the fuss is about, you’re not alone. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian wrote: “Christian Bale undergoes what has to be the least interesting spiritual crisis in history.” Even Bale himself has confessed he was baffled as to what the film was about while making it. As various Tarot cards divide the film into chapters, at least you can have a quick Google to string some vague meaning together; just like you did in that adolescent fortune-telling phase when you didn’t understand men (“The Hanged Man! There is a crossroads… And martyrdom.”)


“See the palm trees – they tell you anything’s possible. You can start over.” Lines like this are peppered through the film in that portentous, whispery tones Malick films have become known for, and if you’re one to be swayed by new-agey motivational aphorisms, this could be one hell of a pep-talk for you to change, just as you’ve given up all those resolutions a few weeks into the new year. Make one of those stills of the starry cosmos your Facebook cover photo, and you’ll be reminded to torpedo your shallow ways and live with meaning every day.


The vapid emptiness of the Hollywood lifestyle is hardly new fodder for satire, and tonnes of films – from Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) to Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014) – have already mined this territory brilliantly. If that’s your bag, you might appreciate a director really taking his industry-insider torment grandly and seriously, even if his first vision of the seedier side of Tinseltown feels like he heard about it secondhand. Rick’s a comedy writer, and though he’s suffering too much inside to crack jokes, there are glimmers of humour in Knight of Cups that are surprising for the usually po-faced, reverential Malick – witness the fashion photographer who instructs the model on a shoot: “You’re like a 1975 housewife who takes steroids and fucks yourself during the day.”


In a film as light on narrative and drifty-dreamy as this, your mind can wander. All those sequences of aimless, windswept LA freeway driving will make you rue the cramped bus journey home, and that harpist in the desolate, dust-covered office will make you wonder why your workplace looks so, well, workplace-y, and not more like a deep rumination on the passage of time you can wistfully run your fingers over. Because we all know that if there are any real subliminal vibes Hollywood is sending out, they’re that your lifestyle is inadequate. Even if the movie underscores the vapid shallowness of days amid all the extravagant decor on display, Malick would at least insist you can’t survive (let alone look half-decent) in a bedroom without buying a giant fan and clocking up a whopping utilities bill to make your sheets all billowy 24/7. 

Knight of Cups is out in cinemas in December