Knight of Cups review: Terrence Malick twirls himself into near-total incoherence

Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett mumble codology as the oblique auteur strays even further into self-parody with this narrative-free pretentious mess

Knight of Cups
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Director: Terrence Mallick
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bently, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer
Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins

Terrence Malick created two American masterpieces – Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) – before disappearing from the movieverse for some 20 years. He returned with The Thin Red Line, a lush, star-studded war movie that managed to make you think 'Wow', even when the shut-uppable voiceover became too airy-fairy and the shots of parrots became too ponderous. The New World, released in 2005, improved on his 1998 return. But somewhere between The Tree of Life (2011) and To The Wonder (2012) Malick has swerved increasingly toward self-parody.

To The Wonder begged the question: just how many more shots of women twirling on coastlines am I going to have to watch? Knight of Cups sounds the answer: too damned many. Christian Bale stars as Rick, an ill-defined Hollywood player with a seeming compulsion to watch his various girlfriends spin around at the seaside.

These include Natalie Portman as an angsty, introspective married woman, Cate Blanchett as Rick’s angsty, introspective ex-wife, and Imogen Poots as an angsty, introspective prostitute. Teresa Palmer’s stripper and Frieda Pinto’s model are less angsty but still apt to pirouette wildly at any given moment.

Rick has a brother (Wes Bentley) and a father (Brian Dennehy) who pop up periodically between twirling scenes: their characters evidently don’t want to be in the movie. Various musings, from all parties, as mumbled over the images, can only be described as Zen codology.


A priest played by Armin Mueller-Stahl pops up to say something about suffering. Ben Kingsley reads from the 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress. Tarot cards divide the film into nominal chapters. Then random thing, random thing and random thing.

Knight of Cups is pretty: any random 15 seconds could double as a pretentious perfume commercial; any random 15 minutes could pass as a hilarious Malick send-up. But over two hours, even with the great Emmanuel Lubezki (Children of Men, Gravity, The Revenant) behind the camera, the effect is like being nailed into a chair in front of a washing machine stuck on rinse cycle.

Unsurprisingly, this mess of tracking shots of deserts, roads and rotating love interests stubbornly refuses to coalesce into anything resembling a narrative film. Neither is it avant-garde enough to function as experimentation.

Let’s not twist again.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic