Review: Knight of Cups (2016)

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Terrence Malick’s recent film, Knight of Cups, is a wondrously reflective film that at once is about the soul’s attempt to ascend from its earthly bounds and at the same time, a meditation on the frustration of the creative process. In the picture, Malick conceives of the soul as an essence that is broken into many pieces as a result of the pleasures of the body. Consequently, the main character Rick (Christian Bale) experiences life as though he is walking through a vale of mist, ever apathetic, disengaged and asleep as moments of life pass him by in seemingly rapid succession.

The conception called to mind Socrates’s idea of the soul. He posited that the soul should be nourished and nursed because it represents a divine essence. With this in mind, the Ancient Philosopher goes on to say that when someone dies, their soul is less likely to pass through the Hades (The Greek underworld) because it is still attached to earthly pleasures.

In tandem with this is the structure of the film, which is fundamentally dual edged. On the one hand, the picture is impressionist and reflexive, as though we are seeing Rick seamlessly probing his memories to find answers. One can compare these instances of interconnected moments and remembrance tapestries to Sergio Leone’s use of memory in Once Upon a Time in America. Leone made these sequences equally organic in their use, as the main character in his twilight years walks around certain parts of a familiar city, immediately struck by a place or object that causes him to reflect on moments from his past which in turn inherently illustrated the degrading nature of time.

The movie is also split into eight chapters that explore a particular aspect of the title that is on screen. Both of these structural facets services the second theme in an equally compelling manner as the first one. The fourth chapter, which is entitled ‘Judgement’ depicts the loving and souring relationship that he had with his first wife Nancy, (Cate Blanchett) which is contrasted with the reunion between the former couple in the present. The segment strongly shows the effect of Rick supposedly scattered soul as it gives rise to random angry moods and an apparent disengagement from his relationship with Nancy. As she expresses half way through the segment, “You never wanted to be totally inside our marriage or outside it either.”

Blanchett’s performance is a compelling portrait in bitterness and vulnerability. At the same time, Blanchett contrasts this with an endearing and enduring love for Rick. The Australian actress brings these two aspects to the fore in a small moment, where Rick looks at Nancy then proceeds to touch her on the shoulder before promptly walks away. Blanchett’s facial expressions during this time convey the contradictory feelings of comfort, sadness and a simmering cruel judgement, which is accentuated with a small gesture of her putting her hand on her left cheek as if she is questioning whether or not she was just touched by the man she loves.

At the same time, some of Malick’s directorial choices efficiently show the developing distance between the two characters, whether it is small contrasts in physicality between Rick and Nancy when walking down the street together. Or the physical distance between the characters in the closing moments of the chapter. There is also a suggestion of fear that is within Rick’s soul that is expressed as an apprehension of life. Malick punctuates this shadow over the spirited part of Rick’s soul with some of the imagery. One particular shot shows a thick patch of fog engulfing the sky, which has the usually radiating sun covered in a grey, which results in it losing its warmth and light as it is shown in the far distance.

In his previous directorial efforts, Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick commendably presented relationships as though they were stirring and passionate flames that would eventually flicker out of existence without explanation. In this film, Malick shows relationships that are somewhat ineffable in nature, but their erosions are much clearer, and they still retain his distinctive intuitive realism.

Finally, Knight of Cups is at its best when Malick is employing juxtaposition through the narration and images. The most prominent example of this is featured in the opening of the film when a story is being told. The tale tells of a King of the East who sends his son to Egypt to find a Pearl from the depths of the sea. Upon reaching the country, the people give him drink that makes him forget that he ever was a Prince. Eventually, he has no memory of his original purpose as he drifts into a long stupor.

While this story is being audibly outlined, Malick shows us images of Rick engaging in debaucherous and silly behaviour. They remind us of the primary idea at the heart of the picture, which is the effect of Rick’s soulless existence in LA. Some of the shots also marry up with various facets of the story. These include an amusing momentary close-up of Rick wearing a horse’s head when the narrator speaks of the King sending messengers to his son and a shot of Rick getting up slowly as the part of the Prince waking up from a deep sleep.

One can read the pearl in the tale as the creative spark, which is reinforced with Rick’s occupation of being a screenwriter. Moreover, the Prince forgetting his purpose of finding the pearl could be inferred as Rick forgetting the original reason of why he wanted to go to LA and become a screenwriter. With this in mind, Malick ultimately synthesises these two themes by having a Priest suggest that God sends suffering to show that he loves us. I read this as Malick’s acknowledgement that though the soul struggles in staying whole and the artist grapples with the lack of creativity. These moments of utter pain and frustration define us as human beings because they test our resolve and strength of the will.

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About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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