Knight of Cups (film)

Knight of Cups is a 2015 American drama film[4] written and directed by Terrence Malick and produced by Nicolas Gonda, Sarah Green and Ken Kao. The film features an ensemble cast, starring Christian Bale as the central character.

Knight of Cups
The poster resembles a tarot card, with a man upside down facing sideways at the top, haloed by the moon. Below him are California palm trees with the Santa Monica Mountains in the background. Above the man is the tagline: "A Quest", and below the palm trees are the credits and title.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byTerrence Malick
Written byTerrence Malick
Produced by
CinematographyEmmanuel Lubezki
Edited by
  • Geoffrey Richman
  • Keith Fraase
  • A. J. Edwards
Music byHanan Townshend
Distributed byBroad Green Pictures
Release dates
  • February 8, 2015 (2015-02-08) (Berlinale)
  • March 4, 2016 (2016-03-04) (United States)
Running time
118 minutes[1][2]
CountryUnited States
Box office$1.1 million[3]

The film follows screenwriter Rick (Bale) on an odyssey through Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a series of adventures with colorful figures, identified by seven tarot cards from the Major Arcana, with Bale as the Knight of Cups.[5][6] 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 "Hymn of the Pearl,"[7] and Suhrawardi's A Tale of the Western Exile.[8]

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. It was released in the United States on March 4, 2016, by Broad Green Pictures[9] to more mixed reviews from critics and audiences alike.[10][11]


Rick is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles, California. He is successful in his career, but his life feels empty. Haunted by the death of one brother and the dire circumstances of the other, he finds temporary solace in Hollywood excess. Women provide a distraction from the daily pain he endures, and every encounter brings him closer to finding his place in the world.

The film is divided into eight chapters (each named after a tarot card from the Major Arcana except 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, a rebellious young woman.

II. The Hanged Man – His brother Barry and father Joseph.

III. The Hermit – Tonio, an amoral playboy.

IV. Judgment – His physician ex-wife Nancy.

V. The Tower – Helen, a serene model.

VI. The High Priestess – Karen, a spirited, playful stripper.

VII. Death – Elizabeth, a married woman with whom he has a relationship and who becomes pregnant with a child that may be his.

VIII. Freedom – Isabel, an innocent who helps him see a way forward.


Ben Kingsley is among the many narrators, but does not appear in the film.

Themes and motifsEdit

What do you want from me?
To weave a spell over you?
To make you dream?
Dreams are nice.
But you can't live in them.

— Helen, in Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups directly quotes a variety of dream vision works, including John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), Mark Frost and David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and the Hymn of the Pearl from the Acts of Thomas. The film freely oscillates between depicting Rick's memory, dreams, and "real" experiences, becoming a stream-of-consciousness series of moments and thoughts. Quotations from the Hymn of the Pearl are read in voice-over by Rick's father in the beginning of the film, with many of the lines corresponding to Rick's experiences and feelings. Much like the Hymn of the Pearl's protagonist, Rick is expected to awaken from his "deep sleep" by remembering "the pearl".

Drugs, alcohol, and other means to altered states of consciousness play a large role in the film. Pivotal scenes include the glittery high-rise party the film begins with, at a mansion full of Hollywood elites (where a patron urges Rick to attend a ketamine party, another patron wears a virtual reality headset, and two children play Wii Sports), and Rick's kaleidoscopic journey to Las Vegas with Karen. Various characters talk about drugs, with Clifton Collins Jr.'s character Jordan telling Nick Offerman's character Scott that "the sweet spot" to get women into in order to open them to seduction "is one Xanny, four white wines". Karen says, "You see, I took drugs once, and it kind of opened up this window for me. I call it the Window of Truth."[12]



In November 2011, the film was announced with Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale and Isabel Lucas mentioned as cast.[13] It was also announced the film would be shot back-to-back with Song to Song.[13] To prepare, Bale read Walker Percy's novel The Moviegoer, on Malick's suggestion.[14]


Production on the film began in June 2012 and lasted nine weeks.[15][16] During production, many of the cast and crew were spotted filming throughout Los Angeles County and Las Vegas, as most of the filming took place on the streets and in public places.[17][18]

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.[19][20][21][22] Bale later said that while filming, he was unclear about what the final film would actually be.[23] During production, Malick used a process he calls "torpedoing", where a character is thrown into a scene without the other actors' advance knowledge, forcing them to improvise.[24][25] 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.[23]


The film spent two years in post-production,[26] which consisted of a small group of editors in the beginning and widened throughout.[15]


Hanan Townshend composed the score for the film. The album was released on March 4, 2016.[27]

Knight of Cups (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Soundtrack album by
Various Artists
ReleasedApril 4, 2016
LabelMilan Records
Knight of Cups Soundtrack[28]
1."Fantasy On a Theme by Thomas Tallis"3:48
2."Exodus (Excerpt)"16:19
3."Water Theme No. 1"3:42
4."The Death of Ase from Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46 (Excerpt)"4:43
6."The Pilgrim"2:10
8."Solveig's Song from Peer Gynt Suite No. 2, Op. 55"5:36
9."Water Theme No. 2"1:58
10."Thomas Tallis Theme"1:56
11."6 Epigraphes Antiques: Pour L'Egyptienne (Excerpt)"1:49
14."Ashtray Wasp"11:46
15."Water Theme No. 3"1:55
16."Dilbar Dilbara Mera"6:34


The film premiered in the main competition section at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival on February 8, 2015.[29] Shortly after, Broad Green Pictures acquired distribution rights to the film.[30] The film had its American premiere at the Santa Barbara Film Festival on February 7, 2016,[31] and was released in the United States on March 4, 2016.[32]


Knight of Cups has received mixed reviews from critics.[10] On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a 47% approval rating based on 187 reviews, with an average rating of 5.8 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."[11] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 53 out of 100 based on 41 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[10]

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".[33] 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]".[34]

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."[35] 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."[36] In The Arizona Republic, Bill Goodykoontz wrote, "I'm all for directors making audiences think, but ultimately, those thoughts need to lead us somewhere."[37]

Some critics were very positive, with Matt Zoller Seitz of, 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 acknowledged 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."[38] In another highly positive review, Richard Brody of The New Yorker called the film "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."[39] Later, in a 2016 BBC poll, Seitz voted Knight of Cups the fifth-greatest film since 2000.[40]


  1. ^ "KNIGHT OF CUPS (15)". British Board of Film Classification. March 4, 2016. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  2. ^ "Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' Gets a Long Synopsis and a Runtime". February 2, 2015. Retrieved February 2, 2015.
  3. ^ "Knight of Cups". The Numbers. Retrieved May 11, 2016.
  4. ^ Smith, Nigel M (February 8, 2015). "Berlin: Christian Bale and Natalie Portman on Making 'Knight of Cups' With Terrence Malick". Indiewire. Retrieved January 3, 2015.
  5. ^ Bradshaw, Peter (February 8, 2015). "Berlin 2015 review: Knight of Cups – Malick's back! With the least interesting spiritual crisis in history". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  6. ^ migration (February 9, 2015). "Terrence Malick's Hollywood odyssey Knight of Cups sets Berlin fest alight". The Straits Times. Retrieved February 11, 2016.
  7. ^ "Berlin Film Review: 'Knight of Cups'". Retrieved February 10, 2016.
  8. ^ "Interview: The Producers of 'Knight of Cups' Including Emerson Alumni Sarah Green". Emertainment Monthly. Retrieved March 22, 2016.
  9. ^ McNary, Dave (July 23, 2015). "Christian Bale's 'Knight of Cups' Gets March Release Date". Variety. Retrieved July 23, 2015.
  10. ^ a b c "Knight of Cups". Metacritic. Retrieved May 18, 2016.
  11. ^ a b "Knight of Cups (2016)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 15, 2020.
  12. ^ Malick, Terrence (Director) (March 4, 2016). Knight of Cups (Motion picture). United States: Broad Green Pictures.
  13. ^ a b Lodderhose, Diane (November 1, 2011). "Bale, Blanchett to star in two Terrence Malick pics". Variety. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
  14. ^ Patches, Matt. "CHRISTIAN BALE ON HIS LOVE/HATE RELATIONSHIP WITH LA, THIN MINTS". Thrillist. Retrieved May 3, 2016.
  15. ^ a b Brooks, Brian (March 4, 2016). "Christian Bale Prowls L.A. In Terrence Malick's 'Knight Of Cups'; 'The Wave' Rushes In: Specialty Preview". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  16. ^ Goldberg, Matt (June 27, 2012). "Freida Pinto and Wes Bentley Spotted in New Set Photos from Terrence Malick's KNIGHT OF CUPS". Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  17. ^ Dew, Blake (July 8, 2012). "Teresa Palmer Joins Terrence Malick's Knight Of Cups". Retrieved January 13, 2016.
  18. ^ Martin, Nick (June 12, 2012). "Imogen Poots Spotted Shooting KNIGHT OF CUPS". Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  19. ^ Roddick, Nick (December 3, 2015). "Christian Bale: I have moments when I feel like Hollywood is the most horrible industry". London Evening Standard. Retrieved February 20, 2016.
  20. ^ "Wes Bentley discusses Knight of Cups and the Terrence Malick experience". Entertainment Weekly. March 3, 2016. Retrieved March 3, 2016.
  21. ^ Jagernauth, Kevin (February 11, 2014). "Joel Kinnaman Says He Shot One Day On 'Knight Of Cups' And Had A 17-Page Monologue". Archived from the original on February 22, 2016. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
  22. ^ Jacobs, Matthew (March 4, 2016). "What's It Like Making A Terrence Malick Movie? We Asked 'Knight Of Cups' Star Freida Pinto". Retrieved March 6, 2016.
  23. ^ a b Smith, Nigel M. (February 8, 2015). "Berlin: Christian Bale and Natalie Portman on Making 'Knight of Cups' With Terrence Malick". Indiewire. Retrieved May 2, 2016.
  24. ^ Jaugernauth, Kevin (June 3, 2013). "Teresa Palmer Talks "Torpedo"-ing Christian Bale On Terrence Malick's 'Knight Of Cups'". Retrieved March 14, 2017.
  25. ^ Ritman, Alex (February 8, 2015). "Berlin: Christian Bale on Terrence Malick "Torpedoing" Him on 'Knight of Cups'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  26. ^ McClintock, Pamela (May 15, 2013). "Cannes First Look: Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' With Natalie Portman". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved June 23, 2013.
  27. ^ "Knight of Cups [Original Soundtrack] - Hanan Townshend - Songs, Reviews, Credits - AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved July 5, 2017.
  28. ^ "Knight of Cups (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) by Various Artists". iTunes. March 4, 2016.
  29. ^ "Berlinale 2015: Malick, Dresen, Greenaway and German in Competition". December 15, 2014. Archived from the original on February 8, 2015. Retrieved December 15, 2014.
  30. ^ Fleming, Mike Jr. (February 12, 2015). "Broad Green Confirms Terrence Malick Deal Starting With 'Knight Of Cups' – Update". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved October 20, 2015.
  31. ^ McNary, Dave (January 12, 2016). "Christian Bale's 'Knight of Cups' Set for U.S. Premiere at Santa Barbara Festival". Variety. Retrieved January 13, 2016.
  32. ^ "Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' Won't Get U.S. Release Until 2016; 'Weightless' to Be Retitled". The Film Stage. June 20, 2015. Retrieved July 23, 2015.
  33. ^ Chang, Justin (February 8, 2015). "Berlin Film Review: 'Knight of Cups'". Variety. Retrieved February 3, 2016.
  34. ^ McCarthy, Todd (February 8, 2015). "'Knight of Cups': Berlin Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 20, 2016.
  35. ^ Macdonald, Moira (March 10, 2016). "'Knight of Cups': Lovely images runneth over, but not much else". The Seattle Times. Retrieved March 26, 2017.
  36. ^ "Critic Reviews for Knight of Cups". Metacritic. Retrieved March 26, 2017.
  37. ^ Goodykoontz, Bill (March 2016). "Review: Christian Bale's 'Knight of Cups' is either art or meandering". The Arizona Republic. Retrieved March 26, 2017.
  38. ^ Seitz, Matt Zoller (March 4, 2016). "Knight of Cups Movie Review & Film Summary (2016)". Retrieved March 4, 2016.
  39. ^ Brody, Richard (March 7, 2016). "Terrence Malick's "Knight of Cups" Challenges Hollywood to Do Better". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved March 8, 2016.
  40. ^ "The 21st Century's 100 greatest films: Who voted?". BBC. August 23, 2016. Retrieved December 26, 2016.

External linksEdit