Knight of Cups follows writer Rick (Christian Bale), on an odyssey through the playgrounds of Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a search for love and self. Even as he moves through a desire-laden landscape of mansions, resorts, beaches and clubs, Rick grapples over complicated relationships with his brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy). His quest to break the spell of his disenchantment takes him on a series of adventures with six alluring women: rebellious Della (Imogen Poots)? his physician ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett)? a serene model Helen (Freida Pinto)? a woman he wronged in the past Elizabeth (Natalie Portman)? a spirited, playful stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer); and an innocent Isabel (Isabel Lucas), who helps him see a way forward.
Rick moves in a daze through a strange and overwhelming dreamscape -- but can he wake up to the beauty, humanity and rhythms of life around him? The deeper he searches, the more the journey becomes his destination.
From director Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups (the title refers to the Tarot card depicting a romantic adventurer guided by his emotions) offers both a vision of modern life and an intensely personal experience of memory, family, and love.
Taken as individual components, a beautiful image, stirring piece of music, or insightful line of dialogue can all hold powerful emotion on their own -- but when each separate element is fused together just right, a truly gifted director can create an entirely new level of meaning, synthesizing sight and sound into a whole far greater than the mere sum of its parts. Eschewing traditional narrative goals, Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' attempts to use this artful intermingling of cinematic ingredients to bring visible form to otherwise intangible pangs of emptiness, confusion, passion, and deep spiritual longing. And while this combination of abstract features does frequently evoke striking flashes of affecting poetry, there are times when the film's dreamy style veers too far into the shallowness its own protagonist seems desperate to escape.
Forgoing conventional dramatic structure, the heavily improvised movie focuses on the loosely flowing existential journey of an LA writer named Rick (Christian Bale). As Rick moves leisurely from woman to woman and party to party, the troubled man begins to struggle with his own empty lifestyle. Forced to cope with failed romances and complicated family ties, he embarks on a search for ever elusive self fulfillment.
Channeling the abstract rhythm of a stream-of-consciousness poem rather than a plot-based narrative, the movie essentially becomes a cascading montage of images and narration, transitioning us between superficial escapades at swanky parties and more romantic dalliances tied to ebbing shores cast under the soft light of magic hour. To this end, actual on-screen dialogue is sparse, especially for star Christian Bale whose lips barely move at all while in the frame. Instead, the film weaves its "story" through lyrical voice over musings spoken by Rick and various other characters that he interacts with -- including a talented ensemble of female love interests played by Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, and Isabel Lucas.
But even more important than these lilting monologues, are the movie's deeply expressive images. Expanding upon the same visual style employed in the director's other recent efforts ('The Tree of Life,' 'To the Wonder') Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use flowing camera movements and natural light to create a gorgeous, almost hypnotizing aesthetic caught somewhere between waking life and dream. Wide angle lenses try to fill the frame with as much imagery as possible without missing a single moment. Likewise, drifting shots frequently follow characters from behind, a frequent visual motif focuses on hair blowing in the wind, and several sequences feature Rick and his numerous girlfriends frolicking through extended takes and fragmented cuts -- all adding to the movie's improvisational and lyrically abstract tone. More overtly surreal flourishes are also employed, including a sequence where Rick's father engages in a listless diatribe as simple cuts transport him from location to location -- moving from inside a room to a rooftop to even on stage where an anonymous crowd of spectators applaud.
At its best, this poetic style can create truly affecting implications of emotion and deeper layers of meaning, effectively exposing Rick's internal struggle through representative sight and sound. Instead of explaining or elaborating on the character's increasing detachments or fleeting romances through dialogue and expository sequences, Malick simply uses the tone and mood of his images, music, and narration to progress his journey both literally and figuratively. With that said, the movie isn't always at its best.
In many ways, Malick's entire filmography has been building toward this unique aesthetic, but the form on display here seems to have reached its peak back in 'The Tree of Life.' Since then, the director has been merely presenting variations on a theme, and it appears to be yielding diminishing returns -- first with 'To the Wonder,' and now even more so with 'Knight of Cups.' To this point, the movie feels a bit underdeveloped and there are times when its deliberate obliqueness comes across as downright shallow.
Repeated scenes of Rick looking pensive or strolling on a beach eventually become redundant without really expressing anything beneath the surface. Likewise, characterizations are essentially non-existent, especially for the female leads, turning each love interest into little more than a passing object of affection. This is ostensibly intentional to some degree, but it limits the impact of their interactions and makes it hard to really connect with Rick's ultimate journey -- even on a purely abstract level. Though I could interpret clear thematic intentions from the director's previous works, here the finale feels far more haphazard and rushed. Pangs of listless wandering, innocence lost, and hopeful rebirth permeate the runtime, but it fails to really add up to a meaningful climax.
At times 'Knight of Cups' feels like a natural and significant evolution of the director's powerful cinematic style... and at times it just feels like an amateur imitation. Thankfully, the former is far more frequent than the latter. Though almost completely devoid of conventional narrative and characterizations, the movie's poetic rhythm and dreamy visual aesthetic are capable of evoking deeply affecting implications of mood and emotion. Sadly, they are also capable of feeling distressingly empty. Like Rick himself, the film seems to be engaged in a struggle between substance and superficial distraction -- but it's a struggle that Malick mostly overcomes.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Broad Green Pictures presents 'Knight of Cups' on a BD-50 Blu-ray disc housed in a keepcase. After some skippable trailers, the disc transitions to a standard menu. The packaging indicates that the release is region A coded.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Marked by gorgeous cinematography, the video transfer is quite striking, though there are some minor issues and inconsistencies here and there.
Though primarily shot on film, the movie also uses footage taken from various digital sources, including lower grade Go-Pro cameras. To this end, the film material looks the strongest, with a light layer of grain preserved. Clarity is good in these sequences, revealing tiny ripples in water and intricate details in the LA cityscape. The overall image does have a slightly soft look, however, though this aesthetic works well with the dreamy, abstract tone of the material. Colors are naturally saturated with a faintly cool cast, and moody primaries pop nicely in clubs and nighttime shots of city lights. Depth is also nicely realized, lending pleasing dimension to the movie's many outdoor scenes. Black levels and contrast are also well balanced, with inky shadows and bright whites that don't clip or crush. With all that said, some of the lower-grade digitally shot sequences do standout a bit, offering a comparatively flat quality with faint artifacts and overly smooth motion. Some marginal false contouring can also be seen in a few isolated scenes as well.
'Knight of Cups' offers a beautifully shot but slightly uneven looking image, with sequences culled from both film and digital sources. Though there are a few inconsistencies, the transfer is very strong overall.
The film is presented with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, along with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. Delicately expansive, the stirring audio perfectly complements the movie's poetic visuals.
Speech is clean and clear throughout, making it easy to hear every whispery line of lyrical narration. Subtly immersive while still being gentle in design, the track carries a very convincing sense of atmosphere, spreading birds, wind, waves, cars, and other ambient effects throughout the soundstage with natural imaging and directionality as they breathe life into each location. A passing helicopter is especially noteworthy as it seamlessly pans from the surrounds to the front speakers. Likewise, an earthquake sequence carries a deep yet not overly aggressive rumble, and scenes set in loud clubs also provide appropriate LFE cues. The film's beautiful score and classical music selections fill the speakers as well, deftly enhancing the movie's abstract mood with powerful melodies.
Skillfully mixed with nuanced design work, strong fidelity, wide range, and enveloping ambiance, the movie's audio perfectly evokes the film's dreamy tone.
Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' is a visually beautiful yet thematically underdeveloped film. Its sumptuous sights and sounds are capable of both deeply moving insights and disappointingly shallow style. On the technical front, this is a rather gorgeous disc, with a great video transfer and a delicately immersive audio mix. Sadly, we only get one supplement, but the making of featurette is worthwhile. Those who dislike the director's abstract aesthetic certainly won't have their minds changed here, but fans of Malick and more experimental forms of filmmaking should still find a lot to admire. Worth a look.