From the Archives: Knight of Cups review

From the Archives: Knight of Cups review

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.
Originally posted on Cinema76.

If I were to make a parody of Terrence Malick’s body of work, it would look exactly like Knight of Cups. Essentially a more brooding Koyaanisqatsi, Malick’s latest forgoes almost every element of conventional storytelling in service of creating a moody montage of beautifully shot imagery. Sadly, that’s all there is. Malick’s gift for shot composition is undeniable – he could shoot a blank wall and elevate it to high art – and his talent for making the banal look electrifying is on full display, but the technological achievement is in service of nothing at all, and it results in a big pile of nonsense.

Knight of Cups is a big pile of nonsense.


According to the plot synopsis (a fool’s errand if there ever was one), Cups is the story of a former screenwriter looking back on his life of excess and wondering what it all means. I guess that happens, but mostly it’s just a camera meandering around as Christian Bale and a laundry list of other celebrities pass in and out of frame. We cut to random shots of outer space, crisp landscapes, and frequently of people on the beach looking off into the distance. There’s a robbery at one point; an earthquake too. There are even a few scenes in which Antonio Banderas babbles on about something or other at a lavish party. Sometimes a narrator spouts weak philosophy, and other times a title card attempts to make segments out of the already cruelly fragmented (if not wholly absent) narrative. In fact, if we put every shot into a randomizer, any resultant permutation would be a functionally identical film.

I really thought that I’d be the type to be able to appreciate what Malick is doing here (Tree of Life is a bona fide masterpiece), but I’m pretty sure the emperor is naked. I even suspect that he might be fully aware of his nudity.


I’m at a loss for how to analyze a movie that seemed more interested in keeping the audience at bay than letting anyone in (perhaps for fear of revealing its own emptiness), so instead I would like to share with you some excerpts from my notes:

– The score is nice

– “Dreams are nice, but you can’t live in them.” Malick should take this advice.

– Is this cryptically introspective or just devoid of meaning?

– I wonder if that earthquake was real, but I do not care.

– Is that Joe LoTruglio? He’s so little.

– I bet that pelican is dead by now. I’ve never seen a pelican with a limp. In the world of pelicans I imagine a limp is indicative of death’s arrival.

– I once fed a live fish to a pelican. The memory freaks me out and I think about it way too much.

– I am so bored. Bored bored bored.

– Natalie Portman just showed up. Her name is the last one on the poster. Hopefully this means the movie is almost over.

– This is going to be hard to review. I should just transcribe my notes and be done with it.

– Sigur Ros is going to watch this movie and then make an underwhelming album about it.

– Christian Bale is chewing on Natalie Portman’s foot. Tarantino would love this. I’d like to see Portman in a Tarantino flick. She’d really do great work with his dialogue.

– Bale has 3 awesome bathtubs.

– Tree of Life earned its right to surrealism through character. This movie has no characters. I am bored.

– I am bored.

– Malick sure does love kids on rope swings.

There are a few doodles here and there, (one is of a pelican) and I distinctly remember noticing that one of the theater’s ceiling lights was markedly brighter than the rest.

I miss you, Terrence Malick. I miss the way you used to work outside of the box with reasons much deeper and more fulfilling than the simple desire to show how far away from the box you can go.

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