Knight of Cups, Embrace of the Serpents, Trapped

TCR-Steve-at-the-Movies-v3KNIGHT OF CUPS

If you’ve seen the back of any number of great actors’ heads running through a field of tall grass or wheat or on a beach or staring across a vast dessert, with the wind billowing in their hair and clothes, then you’ve seen one or more recent films by Terrence Malick. His last three films (The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and the latest, Knight of Cups) make the most sense if you look at them the way you would an Impressionist painting: details (meaning plot and character development) aren’t as important as capturing emotion in its purest, undiluted form. Malick doesn’t seem to care whether you come away from his films knowing what they’re about. Instead, he wants the viewer to walk away filled to the brim with feelings.

With The Tree of Life, the vague ideas on family were so personal and universal, you couldn’t help but embrace and submit to Malick’s visual poetry (courtesy of now-three-time-Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) and strong sense of primal emotions through the eyes of children. But as with To the Wonder, Knight of Cups failed to pull me into its world, and I’ve come to discover that there are few things more uncomfortable than watching a Terrence Malick film when you aren’t absorbed by its splendor and existential ideas.

Instead of seeing the physical embodiment of brotherly love, we get actors bumping into each other. Instead of seeing screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) burying his feelings of self doubt by getting involved in relationships that are doomed from the start, we see a guy pulling in more beautiful tail than a studio head. Remind me again why I’m supposed to feel sorry for a man who gets to sleep with Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas, Imogen Poots and Freida Pinto, as well as be married to (and divorced from) Cate Blanchett?

From what I can piece together from the fractions of story and whispers of dialogue on hand, Rick is on the verge of signing a major deal to write something that’s going to make his beyond wealthy, but he’s questioning the meaning of it all. He reflects on his life and loves, from his broken relationship with his father (Brian Dennehy) and his consummate fuck-up of a brother (Wes Bentley), both of whom have ferocious screaming matches with each other, usually with Rick as the sole audience. The sequences involving this love-hate battle of the wills among the family are the best in the film because they feel tied to something to which many of us can relate. The rest? That’s a little tougher to identify with, and that makes it less engaging and more wish fulfillment by Malick.

By making Rick a screenwriter, rather than a director or actor, Malick is perhaps tying the character to his life between films years ago when his primary source of income was screenwriting and script doctoring. I’m sure at some point, like many writers, those who write movie scripts wish they could be a part of something substantial and create stories of value and depth, instead of churning out Hollywood garbage. But if your way of finding your creative self is to look for him in the beds of beautiful women, maybe you aren’t struggling enough. That said, the sequences featuring Blanchett’s ex-wife Nancy, a successful doctor, are quite good, as we glimpse the dissolution of their marriage. Maybe Rick feels threatened because she doesn’t swoon over him the way other women do. I would have loved to have seen Malick’s version of Scenes from a Marriage about those two and flesh out their relationship to greater satisfaction. But even in its current sketch form, there’s a great deal about their fleeting on-screen moments to pull us in.

There’s a massive party sequence in the middle of Knight of Cups that almost defies description. It’s a grotesque display of wealth, populated by so many famous faces that you’ll likely miss most of them. When I read through the closing credits, I couldn’t believe who was at that party that I simply didn’t catch, but others are a bit easier to spot, such as Antonio Banderas being a wonderful cad. Also getting nice moments are Nick Offerman, Ryan O’Neal and Joe Manganiello. If you don’t let yourself blink, you might spot Thomas Lennon and Joe Lo Truglio looking a bit lost. Jason Clarke simply seems to cling to Bale to make certain he gets some screen time, while the likes of Kevin Corrigan, Joel Kinnaman and Clifton Collins Jr. seem content to blend into the woodwork. The sequence is meant to load us with excess, and Malick’s mission is accomplished.

I’m always going to be eager to see what Terrence Malick has got next for us. The man who gave us Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and especially The Tree of Life has earned that. But it saddens me that even someone as ethereal and prone to experiment as Malick has become predictable in his style and subject matter. Knight of Cups might be too disjointed and loose, even for Malick. Still, I’ll wait like the rest for the follow-up work, and hope that the filmmaker’s inspiration is something more palpable, if not cohesive. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with Knight of Cups star Wes Bentley, go to Ain’t It Cool News.


Nominated this year for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and shot in 35mm, black-and-white film, Embrace of the Serpent is an almost radiantly beautiful work from director and co-writer Ciro Guerra (The Wind Journeys), exploring two expeditions deep in the Colombian Amazon. The story moves back and forth between an early-1900s exploration by a German explorer named Theo (Jan Bijvoet), and his guide Manduca, (Miguel Dionisio Ramos), and another 1940s journey taken by Evans (Brionne Davis), an American. In both cases, the explorers are seeking the rare yakruna plant, believed to have healing properties.

In both timelines, the explorers are aided by a shaman named Karamakate (Nilbio Torres as a young man; Antonio Bolivar Salvado Yangiama, playing him 40 years older), who agrees to help them find what remains of his tribe and who know how to find the plantlife they seek. In the earlier journey, Theo is quite sick, and Karamakate reluctantly uses methods at his disposal to keep him alive long enough for a permanent cure. Embrace of the Serpent is an almost psychedelic exploration of everything from colonialism and the resulting distrust that the locals have for anyone white venturing into their lands, to a more esoteric belief that there’s an almost supernatural quality to the things that grow and live so far removed from the rest of the world.

While the sequences set earlier in history are accompanied with a sense of awe and wonder at previously unknown mysteries being unlocked and revealed, the scenes set later are far more treacherous and melancholy as we see previously untainted lands ruined by exposure to the world outside, both in terms of the destruction of the rain forest and the infiltration of modern ideas into a culture that had existed just fine without them for centuries.

It should come as no surprise that these two stories were inspired by the journals of real-life explorers Theodor Koch-Grünberg and Richard Evans Schultes, both of whom sought this mysterious healing plant. Director Guerra and co-writer Jacques Toulemonde Vidal have fashioned two stories that embody the majesty and danger of cultures clashing in such a way. The result is a stunning piece of filmmaking made all the more haunting and eternal by cinematographer David Gallego’s patient and precise work. Embrace of the Serpent allows you to be swallowed up by the elegance and loneliness of these journeys, and when it concludes, you’re left lost in a land that likely doesn’t exist any longer. It’s a wonderful, moving work of cinema, and you should seek this one out on a large screen to truly appreciate the experience. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.


From director Dawn Porter (Spies of Mississippi, Gideon’s Army) comes Trapped, a gripping, sometimes terrifying look at the way various state legislatures (primarily in the south) have been chipping at abortion laws since the beginning of this decade. The film balances its examination by both giving an overview of laws regulating abortions with the very human stories of a handful of clinic workers devoted to keeping their establishment’s doors open, even as burdensome regulation force the closings of all but a handful of clinics.

The film interviews the doctors and support staff at a few of these places, and spends very little time with actual patients, which may trouble some, but patients aren’t the ones fighting this fight every day on the frontlines. Porter digs deep into the day-to-day tribulations that have turned these clinics into war zones. She also points her cameras at those doing the loudest amount of protesting outside these clinics, and while there no sit-down interviews with these folks, their presence drifts over every aspect of this story.

Not surprisingly, each staff member of these clinics has a deeply personal reason for working there and battling to keep their doors open. They are the ones who paint the clearest picture of who is impacted most each time another clinic is driven out of business. The film maintains a chilling amount of tension throughout, as the doctors discuss and deal with the very real possibility that their lives are in danger. Still, they spend a great deal of their week driving from clinic to clinic—sometimes state to state—to help out in no small way.

Trapped is a frustrating and infuriating examination of how religion has tainted government and distorted its purpose of protecting the weakest and poorest in our society. It’s also a great look at how politicians become so single-minded when it comes to this particular issue that they let the rest of their state go to hell. The footage of what goes on in the Texas legislature is particularly fascinating and will likely made you seethe for any number of reasons. The film doesn’t even bother attempting to be unbiased, and not every documentary has to be to make its point. Still, I’m guessing that no matter what side of the abortion issue you might fall, there’s something to be learned from any film about the abuse of power and how special interest groups have monopolized the government’s time. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.