FEATURING: , , , Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley

PLOT: A successful, hedonistic screenwriter lost in the indulgences and vacuity of Hollywood searches for love and meaning.

Still from Knight of Cups (2015)

WHY IT WONT MAKE THE LIST: While Malick’s approach to cinema remains characteristically unconventional, despite the philosophical narration and existential questions, the film still charts as a fairly standard dramatic narrative.

COMMENTS: “To be a philistine or not to be a philistine?” That is the question that troubles reviewers when approaching the films of Terrence Malick. When a film maker is consciously addressing questions such as the meaning of life –a question in which every person on this planet has a stake—if the reviewer’s response isn’t positive, they can find themselves asking the questions: did the film not speak to me because it was poorly executed, or because the message was over my head? Is it a load of pretentious rubbish, or did I simply not get it?

All questions of framing, scripting and pacing aside, the answer––particularly when it comes to films that address existential concerns like those of Malick, or —is always subjective. The film either meant something to you, or it didn’t. (I am thinking of this site’s controversial review for Possession, a film I personally loved but which the reviewer hated). Where I saw a visceral film with an impassioned performance from and unsettling, demonic imagery depicting a relationship imploding, the reviewer saw a pretentious, vapid stream of hollow images. Technique aside—which thankfully isn’t so subjective and can be argued—the film either spoke to you, or didn’t.

Did Knight of Cups speak to me? To perfectly honest, no. Does this mean I simply didn’t “get it”? Possibly, but again, considering how subjective a film experience is, not to mention how subjective and open-ended Malick’s images are, does it matter? Every filmgoer brings their own meanings to a film based on their own experiences, very often bringing associations that are far removed from the filmmaker’s original intent, if they’re even prepared to talk about that (and we all know how Malick has addressed this question: radio silence). Is Cups a load of pretentious rubbish? Again, the question of meaning-making is entirely dependent on the viewer. I was able to find meanings and recurring messages in the film, even if I didn’t particularly respond to the actual film experience.

So what is Cups about? On the surface, this is a straightforward tale of a successful screenwriter Rick (who doesn’t do a lick of actual writing in the film, mind you), who experiences inertia and nihilism among various mansion parties and trappings of Hollywood. He has relationships with six women, including his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), and battles with his bitter father Joseph ( Brian Dennehy) and his hothead brother Barry (Wes Bentley).

It’s a small miracle that any low-income viewer can empathize with this spoiled screenwriter who is continually surrounded by beautiful women, a luxury apartment, and agents who find him work despite his failing to hand in assignments. It shouldn’t work, but it does, primarily because Rick’s search involves questions that are universal: Why am I here? Where does my happiness lie? Why do I feel empty?

The answer seems to lie in the story from the start of the film, a story Joseph tells Rick as a young boy: it concerns a Prince who is sent West into Egypt by his Father to locate a pearl. Instead, the Prince is given a Cup, drinks from it, and forgets who he is and about the Pearl. The analogy of becoming lost in Hollywood’s excesses will be obvious to most. The Pearl, however, as Joseph’s recurring narration gradually makes clear to us, is “light”, and these distinctions between lifestyles of “light” and “darkness” continue throughout the film. Light leads you to inner peace and Zen gardens, and darkness leads you to nihilism and strip clubs. Take your pick.

Why didn’t this film speak to me? This has to do with a number of factors, but primarily Malick’s technique of shooting everything from a haphazard, oblique angle. Nearly half the film is shot from behind someone’s back, and I grew increasingly impatient with the sight of Christian Bale’s hair as the film progressed. In the extras the actors describe this process as “working out what’s happening in the scene and then hiding it”, deliberately obscuring the action and trusting the audience to work out what’s going on. While this may be a noble objective, it has the effect of distancing the audience from the action, rather than drawing them in, especially when major events seem only half caught by the camera (for example an explosive dinner fight between Joseph, Rick and Barry).

This is not to say that Malick’s ephemeral method hasn’t gelled with me before. I adored both The Tree of Life and The New World. In those films there were compelling relationships and drama that emerged from the transient collage: a childhood struggle with a strict Father in one and the haunting, doomed love of Pocahontas and John Smith in the other. Despite the fine array of actors on board, nothing about Cups really gets under the skin. Events drift and unfold without ever truly engaging us. As a result, while we feel Rick’s pressing need for meaning, we care little about his quest.

The DVD extras include a selection of deleted scenes (that are essentially extended scenes) and a short featurette called “Catch It,” where the actors describe Malick’s process of “looseness and flow and experimentation”. As Natalie Portman relates: “Terry trusts the audience, he doesn’t point to the scene and say ‘Look at this! Feel this!’” (Personally, I could have done with Malick telling me why I should care about anyone in this picture).


“…[Malick’s] latest piece of foggy strangeness plays like a two-hour trailer for a more linear 100-hour movie.”–Christopher Lawrence, Las Vegas Review Journal (DVD)

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