Knight of Cups is maverick filmmaker Terence Malick’s whirlwind critique of the effete Hollywood lifestyle. Working from the industry’s periphery his whole career, Malick, known for his beautiful cinematography and poetic narration, long specialized in period pieces. His dreamily contemplative approach is well-suited for stories about the mythic grandeur of the past. Like its predecessor, To The Wonder, Knight of Cups is set entirely in the present, and the collision of style and subject yields, for Malick, decidedly stranger results: watching it has the confounding allure of seeing something simultaneously lived and remembered. Trained as a philosopher, the director was always interested in phenomenology (human consciousness), and his film, bursting with intriguing ideas and themes, paints an incredible freewheeling portrait of the human experience. As a drama, however, Knight of Cups lacks the totality of vision necessary to make it a truly compelling work of art.
Christian Bale plays a listless Hollywood playboy named Rick. Between pitch sessions and writers’ meetings, he lives in a state of quasi slumber. Even when he’s partying he’s not completely alive to the stimuli surrounding him. Early on, an earthquake rocks Los Angeles and literally shakes him awake. In one-sided conversations with his addict brother (Wes Bentley) and broken-down, old dad (Brian Dennehy), we see that Rick is taciturn and impassive; he listens and observes like someone who can’t quite participate in their own life. The film’s title comes from a tarot card — the Knight of Cups. Its recipient is thought to be artistic, energetic and impressionable. That same person, if the card lands upside down, is said to be fraudulent and reckless and has difficulty discerning the truth from lies. Rick is seemingly both iterations: a creative bewitched by Hollywood and a hedonist thriving in a counterfeit world, a perpetual unreality.
The film breaks down into several chapters whose chronology is unclear, with titles like “The Moon”, “The Judgement” and “The Hanged Man”. In one episode, Rick attends a party thrown by a wealthy lothario (Antonio Banderas) at a swanky mansion, where the grounds and rooms are obscenely luxurious. By revealing the vacuous ersatz opulence that entices and haunts Rick, Malick wants us to understand how easy it is to be seduced by the fakery of modern life. The protagonist walks the gorgeous lobby of a talent agency and the empty backlot sets of a major studio, the places where dreams are built on blueprints for our consumption. Through Rick, Malick reveals how that essential inauthenticity is now part of our collective unconscious. When Rick visits Vegas, that mecca of kitsch, that chimera in the desert, the theme really flourishes, as Malick shoots the pool at Caesar’s Palace like it’s Heaven’s Gate.
The plot is something of a morality play about womanizing. During each episode, Rick spends time with a different woman, yet no sex is explicitly shown; the characters’ playful blithe mobility only implies it, the way dancing does. The succession of affairs gets repetitive, even if Malick wants their shallowness, spontaneity and brevity to be the point. One girl tells Rick, “You want the experience of love rather than the thing itself”. Each affair feels like exactly that: an experience, and nothing more. The women include an actress (Imogen Poots), a stripper (Teresa Palmer), and a model (Frieda Pinto). Cate Blanchett, as his ex-wife, an ER nurse, appears to be Rick’s severed tie to the real world. Natalie Portman arrives basically from nowhere as a married woman with whom his connection is the deepest and therefore the most doomed.
The actresses have little more than cameos, since the film’s discursive style doesn’t allow them time to develop characters. Malick is a latter-day modernist who constantly pushes the boundaries of filmic storytelling and whose films have grown increasingly impressionistic. Here the actors don’t really have dialogue, per se; they either whisper enigmatic phrases from off-screen or improvise lines that the editors then truncate. The director doesn’t stage scenes so much as film his characters doing things, like taking walks, swimming, dancing, frolicking, cuddling, etc. The photography and editing are permitted similar latitude, and they less frame the action than emphasize and revisit meaningful images. Shots from cars racing down freeways and through tunnels are juxtaposed with serene landscapes to insinuate the alarming warp-speed of modernity. The camera lingers upon a bush in the desert, not burning — as if to suggest God’s absence, or indifference. Water, from oceans and pools, is the most prominent motif. The former is choppy but natural, whereas the latter is placid but artificial, chemically sanitized. The Pacific is shown so often that it’s more of a character than Portman is.
In the prologue, an unnamed narrator recites a passage from John Bunyan’s Christian allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress, which gives Rick’s odyssey a religious foundation. However, Malick also repurposes that text into a suggested saga of the American West. He evokes the pious settlers who headed toward the sea seeking deliverance, and he laments how, over the centuries, we built illusory houses-of-cards like Hollywood and Las Vegas on top of the land they settled. Rick is something of a Western anti-hero, too; he’s a restless searcher, fated to wander. Every so often, the film cuts to footage where he saunters solipsistically through the desert. Malick is ambiguous about whether he’s actually lost, like the pilgrims who wandered there, too, before they found their way (or didn’t), or whether his waywardness is only spiritual. Malick intimates that the film’s events could be recollections, Rick’s unconscious mind unfurled.
More challenging even than his Palm D’or winner, The Tree of Life, though not nearly as great, Knight of Cups is admirable as a filmic essay on phenomenology. Malick demonstrates, I think, that we experience life in sharp, precise moments which together make up a frenetic collage of thoughts and feelings in our internal consciousness. As a narrative film, however, it’s a disappointment because it lacks wholeness. The end, for example, simply peters out, leaving everything beforehand to feel like a string of brilliant but loose ideas. There’s a parable early on that’s meant to apply to Rick that I think also applies to Malick: a young man travels to Egypt seeking a valuable pearl but drinks an elixir that makes him sleepy and he forgets his mission. Recently, the director seems drunk on his intellectualism; his films are now so intertextual and esoteric that you need a half-dozen humanities degrees to understand them. Malick is probably the smartest director alive, but he’s less enjoyable as an artist because he no longer wants our connection, only our study.