Thoughts on Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

In the beginning was The Tree of Life.

That was the first work of divergence in the enigmatic director Terrence Malick’s body of work. His first four films spanned three decades–Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005)–productions that adhered to a relatively conventional storytelling approach, albeit still marching to the beat of his own drum. Then came six years of silence.

In 2011, we saw a new cinematic form come out. The Tree of Life emerged like a new life after a long metamorphosis. It was genre defying, with real and imaginary visuals replacing narrative plots, voiceover replacing dialogues. Dually cosmic and realistic, it boldly explored subjects that spanned eternity, from the Creation to the Afterlife. The story focused on a small Texan family during the 1950’s. The latent conflicts and tensions in the family’s relationships, father, mother, husband, wife, sons, brothers, brought forth a series of existential questions. Whispers of inner anguish, doubts, faith, and the search for redemption fill the movie theatre.

I was stunned by Malick’s audacity. This wouldn’t sit well with critics or viewers alike.

Apparently the thought of rejection didn’t bother the auteur, for the next year saw a repeat of the style. For those who thought The Tree of Life was only a one-time experiment were met with the confirmation that yes, this is Malick’s new cinematic style. To the Wonder is another film seemingly devoid of plot, a visual poetry of love, loss, and the human soul. We see again more voiceovers replacing dialogues, characters drifting through dreamscapes. The Tree of Life was only the beginning. Malick has created a new form of cinematic storytelling.

Then came Knight of Cups in 2015. The director that had taken thirty-two years to make his first four films gives us a trilogy of thought-provoking, genre-defying features in just four years. Knight of Cups is slowly trickling into limited screens this spring, but only an ephemeral appearance. In selective cities, it came quickly and was gone. The movie industry is big business, and box office sales is the bottom line, a fact that doesn’t seem to be a concern for Malick.

Knight of Cups.jpg

Knight of Cups starts off with a parable. A knight sent by his father, the King of the East, went into Egypt to find a pearl from the depths of the sea. But when the prince arrived the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He soon forgets his identity and his mission to look for the pearl.

The allusion to Pilgrim’s Progress is also invoked. From that, we know the tale of one man’s escape from the City of Destruction and his quest to search for the Celestial City.

Visually on screen, an earthquake shakes up a sleeping man. We later learn that he is Rick (Christian Bale), a successful screenwriter in L.A., well networked with the rich and famous of Hollywood. Rick is roused up from the quake, tiptoes barefoot through shattered glass to get out into the street, an apt metaphor of his life, fragmented, broken like the debris on the ground.

Thus sets the stage as we follow Rick into the high life of Hollywood: parties, night clubs, Gatsby-esque wildness of L.A. and Las Vegas. The film cast interestingly is made up of well-known names from Hollywood (bravo at the parallel). Through all these, Rick appears aloof, a stranger in his own land.

Ummm, not unlike Camus’s outsider.

His agent tells him: “I want to make you rich. All you need to do is say yes. Who do you want to meet? I can arrange.”

Almost as close as another such luring promise… “all this I will give you, if you bow down and worship me.”

 But the outsider is a tormented soul desperately seeking meaning, not riches or fame. Ambivalent relationships with a skid row brother and a father (Brian Dennehy) who is in turmoil living through the suicide of another son are the slings and arrows hurled at Rick. “I died a different way, “ we hear him say.

Women? Six of them, at one time or another. Played by Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freda Pinto, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas. They appear as vignettes, drifting in and out of his life; not all in waste, each has something to offer. One of them has uttered:

“We’re pilgrims on this earth. We’re not leading the life we’re meant for. We’re meant for something else.”

Or take his ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), a benevolent doctor who works with the poor. She could have been an inspiring figure, but they had to part. “I just want to be loved,” she says.

Of course, Rick can’t give what he doesn’t have. He too is searching for that powerful love that can complete him.

“Redeem my life… Justify me,” we hear Rick’s voiceover, a thirst which no human can quench.

He must rouse up from his sleep. Remember who you are and your mission. Remember the pearl? Go look for it. “How do I reach you? How do I find my way there?”

I’m glad from the fragments of internal dialogues, I can hear some positive words: “God shows His love through suffering… He leads you through. Regard them as gifts… more precious than happiness… Be thankful for suffering.”

Who would have thought? The reverse of common sense? But then again, how true. 

“You gave me peace, mercy, love, joy. You gave me what the world can’t give.”

Accompanying all these voiceovers is the captivating cinematography. It is interesting to see how three consecutive Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant 2015, Birdman 2014, Gravity 2013) converts soulful anguish onto the screen with lyrical, visual metaphors and well-paced changes of scenes. Faster paced for the ephemeral hedonism, slower for the meditative and transcendent.

The transporting effects are made complete by the musical score. Yes, that’s one of the main reasons I’m so mesmerized by Malick’s recent films. Knight of Cups has a long and expansive playlist with over 50 titles. Among them are these stirring pieces that capture my full attention, Wojciech Kilar ‘s “Exodus”, Arvo Pärt’s “Symphony No. 4 Los Angeles” and the film composer for Malick’s previous two works, the New Zealand born Hanan Townshend’s musical creations.

But one melody stands out and with the scenery on screen stirred me the deepest.

Now what’s the name of that piece? The music overwhelms me with a kind of existential longing, pathos, and deep resonance. 

Yes, got it. I later found out from the movie soundtrack, it was Solveig’s Song from Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”. I made a quick purchase and downloaded the tune and have been listening to it ever since. Like the effect of Smetana’s “The Moldau” in The Tree of Life, I know it will remain in my mind for some time to come.

That’s the reason I still go to the cinema. In that pitch-dark and relatively empty (what do you expect) theatre, I can sit quietly, watch, listen, and think.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

The Tree of Life Movie Review

Days of Heaven


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Thoughts on Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups”

    1. David,

      I’m beginning to equate T. Malick with W. Allen in terms of the prolific way they create new works, and their attraction of A-listers. The Austen music scene story Weightless will come out next year according to IMDb. Quite a cast, on top of Bale, Blanchett, and Portman, there’s also Michael Fassbender, Ronney Mara, Holly Hunter, Ryan Gosling.


      1. Honestly, as one who lives near and has experienced the Austin music scene — I just can’t imagine a Malick and Austin combo. Twenty or thirty years ago, it would have made some sense, perhaps, but Austin has turned so slick, so self-promoting, so SXSW, that it’s almost a parody of itself. Of course, those of us who love Texas sometimes find it hard to imagine Austin as a part of Texas, so there’s that.

        On the other hand, I wouldn’t miss Weightless, just to see what Malick does with it. It could be quite interesting.


        1. Linda,

          Not hard to equate Malick with Austin. He grew up in Texas (and OK), and went to the St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, before heading to Harvard to study philosophy and then as a Rhode scholar to Oxford, albeit not completing his time there. Tree of Life is about a Texan family and the film was mostly shot there, including Houston (Ha, you just might have passed by him without knowing), Dallas and Austin. His ‘philosophy’? I hear echoes from a familiar source, the Bible.


  1. I enjoyed very much reading your thoughts on this movie. I like writings that are really trying to discern the meaning behind the director’s take.Yours is superb. I am yet to see this movie. I applaud Malick’s philosophical route, but I do believe – as in “To the Wonder”, amidst the beauty and philosophy, he sometimes struggles to connect the audience emotionally – to do that the audience needs to get to know and understand the characters – he hardly bothers to provide for that to happen.


    1. dbmoviesblog,

      Thanks for your comment! You’re right. It doesn’t seem like Malick has put that on his priority list: to connect with the general audience. However, that very fact may just be the detached, existential feeling he was trying to depict about Rick. Ha! I know, this sounds like a practical joke. Anyway, you’re also right in that, I think the audience has to do a lot of work to interact with a Malick film, definitely not a passively sit back and entertain me kind of work.
      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, I don’t know on this one. It’s a beautifully written blog piece but while I know you loved “Tree of Life,” I just couldn’t love, even like, even appreciate it. I was never so glad something was over in my life. I suspect I might not be deep enough for Malick or at least not that one and probably not this one — although you do make it sound far more intriguing, but still convoluted! Life’s too short, I think, for me on this one.


    1. Jeanie,

      Appreciate your candid confession. Indeed, Malick’s films may well be for, as they say, a ‘niche’ audience. Anyway, know what I’m looking forward to seeing next? Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange. The trailer is real cool. Also, you know the Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (one of his last works) movie Eye in the Sky is produced by Colin Firth. I’d like to see that too.


  3. Great review, so I am definitely curious. I remember enjoying the Tree of Life. It wasn’t my favourite film by any means, but very thought provoking. This one seems interesting if, for nothing else, the allusion to the Tarot Knight of Cups, the presence of the Moon and perhaps the clue in the movie poster itself? A reversal?


    1. Michelle,

      Yes, the Tarot card is only slightly alluded to as the name comes from there, but the main ideas rest on Biblical references of lost and found, redemption, and that pivotal notion of: what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Thought-provoking definitely.


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