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Arts & Culture

Terrence Malick's 'Knight Of Cups' Offers Transcendent Visual Storytelling

Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale share a brief relationship in Terrence Malick' "Knight of Cups."
Broad Green Pictures
Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale share a brief relationship in Terrence Malick' "Knight of Cups."

But it's not a film for everyone

Film review: 'Knight of Cups'
KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Knight of Cups."

Terence Malick has won acclaim for films as diverse as Days of Heaven, Thin Red Line and Tree of Life. KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says his new film Knight of Cups will please his devoted fans and confuse everyone else. Going to see a Terence Malick film is like going to church, it’s a religious experience that those without faith will not understand. His early films, Badlands and Days of Heaven, were gorgeous to look at but also had strong narratives to engage mainstream audiences. More recently he’s abandoned plot entirely for a free flowing stream of consciousness that’s pure visual storytelling. CLIP All those years living the life of someone I didn’t know… For Knight of Cups he follows Christian Bale on a journey of self-discovery. It’s a film that asks you to pay attention and for those willing to piece together a narrative from his scrapbook of moving images, it’s a transcendent experience. Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Companion viewing

"Badlands" (1973)

"Days of Heaven" (1978)

"The Tree of Life" (2011)

Terrence Malick has won acclaim for films as diverse as “Days of Heaven,” “The Thin Red Line” and “The Tree of Life.” His new film “Knight of Cups” (opening March 11 at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas and Angelika Film Center) will likely please his devoted fans and confuse everyone else.

Going to see a Terrence Malick film is like going to church: it’s a religious experience that those without faith will not understand. His early films — “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” — were gorgeous to look at but also had strong narratives to engage mainstream audiences.

More recently, however, he’s drifted away from a conventional narrative structure in favor of a more free-flowing stream of consciousness in films, such as “The New World” and “The Thin Red Line.” But with “The Tree of Life,” and now “Knight of Cups,” Malick seems to have committed himself to something that’s quite simply pure visual storytelling.

Visual storytelling, in which the bulk of the information is conveyed through the image and not through dialogue, was the language of the silent films where filmmakers had to rely primarily on images and the occasional title card. But now this seems to have become a foreign language to American audiences.

The majority of filmgoers today seem to want to have their films laid out in entirety in trailers so that when they arrive at a theater to watch there are no surprises. And they favor stories where the filmmaker leads them by the hand through the narrative, making sure everything is explained.

Even action films like “The Force Awakens” and “The Avengers” movies will explain and set up action, and allow for considerable chatter during action scenes.

Malick embraces a visual sense of storytelling that is not that of the silent filmmakers but something uniquely his own.

For “Knight of Cups” he follows Rick (Christian Bale), a writer, on a journey of self-discovery. The journey is set in motion by a story Rick’s father tells about a man who has lost his way and is trying to find a pearl.

The film proceeds to take us through a series of romantic relationships (Cate Blanchett, Frida Pinto, Teresa Palmer, Natalie Portman), as well as family relationships with his father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley). Although Los Angeles and Las Vegas, two cities infamous for their surface gloss provide the backdrop for most of the film, I don’t think Malick is particularly railing out at their soullessness but rather is taking viewers on a more intimate and personal journey of one man who has lost his way.

“Knight of Cups” is a challenging film because Malick asks you to pay attention. Dialogue is minimal and sometimes delivered in an offhanded manner or through a voiceover where the narrator is constantly changing even though we are focused on Rick’s journey.

The bulk of the information viewers must glean comes through what we see. So for much of the film, Rick is seen on the edge of things — at railings on a balcony, on a ledge of a building, on the edge of a pool — about to fall off. Malick then contrasts these scenes with Rick out in the desert or the beach where there are no edges, just wide open space where he can safely stand on the earth, not precariously perched on man-made structures.

Malick’s film may look to a casual observer like a meandering mess but he is a careful storyteller who puts care into what we see and how he conveys information. So there’s a clever contrast between Rick entering an elevator surrounded by the beautiful people of an ad covering the elevator walls and a scene on a beach where he walks through a crowd of overweight, handicapped, and diverse-looking people. He gives us hints with chapter headings taken from the names on Tarot cards (The Moon, Death, The High Priestess, and the film’s title, Knight of Cups).

Rick’s father says at one point that perhaps damnation is the pieces of one’s life not coming together. And for some that may be how “Knight of Cups” feels. But for those willing to piece together a narrative from Malick’s scrapbook of moving images, it’s a transcendent experience.

“Knight of Cups” is seductively shot once again by Emmanuel Lubezki (who has worked consistently with Malick since “The New World”). The film feels almost like a thematic continuation of the ideas he tackled in “The Tree of Life.” This is definitely not a film for everyone and it’s not meant to be. But for those of us who worship in Malick’s cinematic temple, it rewards our faith.

Check out my reflection on Malick's body of work.

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