The film follows depressed Los Angeles screenwriter Rick (Bale) on an odyssey through the playgrounds of Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a search for love and self via adventures with colorful figures, identified by eight tarot cards. The title of the film refers to the tarot card, the Knight of Cups. The film is loosely inspired by, and at times quotes directly from, the 1678 Christian allegory The Pilgrim's Progress, the Acts of Thomas passage The Hymn of the Pearl, and Suhrawardi's A Tale of the Western Exile.
After over two years in post-production, the film premiered in the main competition section at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival on February 8, 2015 to mixed reviews. The film was released in the United States on March 4, 2016 by Broad Green Pictures to further mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike.
Rick is a film screenwriter living in Los Angeles, California. While he's successful in his career, his life feels empty. Haunted by the death of one brother and the dire circumstances of the other, he finds temporary solace in the Hollywood excess that defines his existence. Women provide a distraction to the daily pain he must endure, and every encounter that comes his way brings him closer to finding his place in the world.
The film is divided into eight chapters (each named after a tarot card, except for the final chapter Freedom), plus a prologue, each loosely based around the central character's relationship with somebody in his life:
I. The Moon - Della (Imogen Poots), a rebellious young woman.
II. The Hanged Man - His brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and father Joseph (Brian Dennehy).
III. The Hermit - Tonio (Antonio Banderas), an amoral playboy.
IV. Judgment - His physician ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).
V. The Tower - Helen (Freida Pinto), a serene model.
VI. The High Priestess - Karen (Teresa Palmer), a spirited, playful stripper.
VII. Death - Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a married woman with whom he has a relationship and who becomes pregnant with a child that may be his.
VIII. Freedom - Isabel (Isabel Lucas), an innocent who helps him see a way forward.
The film is narrated by Ben Kingsley
In November 2011, the film was announced with Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Isabel Lucas mentioned as cast. It was also announced the film would be shot back-to-back with Song to Song, with production beginning in 2012. For preparation, Bale read Walker Percy's book The Moviegoer, which was suggested to him by Malick.
Production on the film began in June 2012, and lasted nine weeks. During production, a lot of the cast and crew were spotted filming throughout Los Angeles County and Las Vegas by paparazzi, as most of the filming took place on the streets and in public places of both cities.
Although a script was written, Bale received no pages from it, while all other cast members received only pages of internal and verbal monologue for each shooting day. As such, Bale would later admit that while filming, he was unclear about what the final film would actually be. During production, Malick would use a process he calls "torpedoing", where a character from the cast is thrown into a scene while the other actors have no idea that character would be in the scene, forcing the cast to improvise. In addition to a traditional studio, the cast also recorded their voice-over work in nontraditional places, such as in a van or by the side of the road.
The film spent two years in post-production, which consisted of a small group of editors in the beginning and widened throughout.
Hanan Townshend composed the score for the film. The album was released on March 4, 2016.
The film premiered in the main competition section at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival on February 8, 2015. Shortly after, Broad Green Pictures acquired distribution rights to the film. The film had its American premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival on February 7, 2016, and was released in the United States on March 4, 2016.
Knight of Cups has received mixed reviews from critics. On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film currently holds a 46% approval rating based on 152 reviews, with an average rating of 5.6 out of 10. The site's consensus reads, "Knight of Cups finds Terrence Malick delving deeper into the painterly visual milieu he's explored in recent efforts, but even hardcore fans may struggle with the diminishing narrative returns." On Metacritic, the film currently has a weighted average score of 53 out of 100 based on 41 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Justin Chang of Variety called the film "flawed but fascinating" and a "feverish plunge into the toxic cloud of decadence" as Malick offers a "corrosive critique of Hollywood hedonism". Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter said that the "resolutely poetic and impressionist" film "conveys most bracingly [the] fleeting nature of human exchange", but the end result "is a certain tedium and repetitiveness along with the rhythmic niceties and imaginative riffs... this one mostly operates on a more dramatically mundane, private and even narcissistic level [than The Tree of Life]".
Moira Macdonald of The Seattle Times praised the film's "dreamlike" nature, but also stated that "you keep waiting for the film to come together, for Rick to emerge as a character rather than a cipher, for the women to seem less interchangeable — in short, for a point to it all. By its end, I was still waiting." Stephanie Zacharek of TIME wrote that the director "understands so little about women" and argued, "For loyal Malick fans, the woozy dream-logic visuals here may be enough. But this director is hardly the perceptive student of human nature he's cracked up to be." In The Arizona Republic, Bill Goodykoontz wrote, "I'm all for directors making audiences think, but ultimately, those thoughts need to lead us somewhere."
Some critics, however, were very positive, with Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com, who gave the film four out of four stars, stating, "Nobody else is making films like this. Not at this level...The sheer freedom of it is intoxicating." He did, however, acknowledge how it would be "impenetrable and intolerable" for most audiences, and that "Knight of Cups is not a young man's movie...[It's a] philosophically engaged, beatific, starchild-as-old-man's movie." In another highly positive review, Richard Brody of The New Yorker described the film as "an instant classic in several genres—the confessional, the inside-Hollywood story, the Dantesque midlife-crisis drama, the religious quest, the romantic struggle, the sexual reverie, the family melodrama" and considered it "one of the great recent bursts of cinematic artistry, a carnival of images and sounds that have a sensual beauty, of light and movement, of gesture and inflection, rarely matched in any movie that isn’t Malick’s own." Later, in a 2016 BBC poll, Seitz voted Knight of Cups the fifth-greatest film since 2000.
Cate Blanchett's performance in the film was listed by Indiewire as one of the 15 best performances in a Terrence Malick film.