Though the bones of the film are familiar, something is different about Terrence Malick‘s latest release, Knight of Cups. The director’s regular building blocks, such as whispered voiceover and gorgeous cinematography, lensed once again by Emmanuel Lubezki, are in place. An intuitive edit assembles the often-improvised scenes into a thematic probe into man’s place in nature. The location, however, has changed, opening a window onto potential new obsessions.
The nucleus of Knight of Cups is Rick (Christian Bale), a stultifying screenwriter living a detached and hedonistic lifestyle in Los Angeles. Malick follows Rick into the canyons of the city, through cement and glass structures. These offices, hotels, and homes are often indistinguishable from one another in a vision of the city in which work and sex and spirituality are intertwined, if not always seamlessly.
This is a break from Malick’s frequent preoccupation with natural environments; the transition is jarring, and at first arresting. So while the view returns again and again to the beach as Rick seeks connections, angles and architecture dominate as Rick floats through Coldwater Canyon parties, Venice condos, towering agency offices in Century City, and downtown parking garages. This is a film of elite soirees, hidden strip clubs, and high-fashion photo shoots.
Malick opens with quotes from Pilgrim’s Progress, shots of the Aurora Borealis from space, and a recited tale about a king’s son who, while on a quest to retrieve a pearl, becomes lost and distracted, falling into dissolute life far from home. The story of the distracted Prince and his battle with temptation and faith becomes a key parallel as we learn of Rick’s relationship with his deeply religious father (Brian Dennehy), his angry, combative brother (Wes Bentley), and the many women in his life.
Knight of Cups is a difficult film to like, even for those inclined to follow Terrence Malick along his long religious and poetic pathways. There’s no story in any classic sense, rather an impressionistic set of vignettes in which Rick dallies with a series of women and ponders the spiritual inheritance passed from his father. The story of the Prince and the pearl is a constant allegorical presence, and players are introduced with chapter headings drawn from the Arcana of the Tarot. None of these symbols or influences are ever addressed head on. Even for those who don’t know a lick about the Tarot, however, Malick’s intentions become somewhat clear over time as he repeats and layers these concepts.
The script, inasmuch as one even existed, barely bothers with characters, at least not in the way most filmmakers approach them. This film is full of ghosts and impressions and a few big archetypes. Some almost reach character statues but always have a lot of interpretive wiggle room. For starters, there’s Rick’s self-aware and melancholic ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), the flirty but serious ingenue (Imogen Poots), and the married woman (Natalie Portman) with whom Rick may actually be in love, and whose unborn child may be his.
Each figure represents an opportunity for Rick to wake up, or at least to realize some truth about himself. His immobility—his failure to processes the pressures and insights that play upon his life and career—is the core of the film. Rick doesn’t actually process much; any forward movement may only be allegorical.
So Knight of Cups, while occasionally beautiful, can be extraordinarily frustrating. Rick is at a nexus point, where he understands his situation, and is aware of the potential in his life, but he’s paralyzed. The point of decision at which the film finds Rick is a thing we’ve all felt, and an ideal dramatic launchpad. But Knight of Cups is as immobile as Rick, more interested in watching and dreaming its way through the haze than moving through it.
The film is often very unsubtle in its use of symbols and situations—the result, perhaps, of crafting the story from largely improvised material. Malick goes for big images, including Dennehy washing his hands in blood and Bale ogling a series of nude, cavorting women whose faces are barely ever caught on camera. Many of the women who pass through Rick’s bed seem to be more active, and therefore more conventionally interesting, than he is. As little as we truly know about Rick, we learn far less about his various partners.
I wondered at times whether Malick and Lubezki are as seduced by the glitz and flesh of Los Angeles in very much the same way the film accuses Bale’s character of falling for superficial distractions. The lends tends to linger on Rick’s many partners, and on revelers at a big film industry party. That may be exactly the point, the better to communicate just how one falls so deeply into the temptation trap in which Bale’s character is ensnared.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5