Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups borrows from the tarot, dividing itself into sections with names like “Judgement,” “Death,” and “The Hanged Man,” but in terms of what it all means, it’s hard to decide whether the film is a meditation on excess or just an exploration of a fine line between boredom and frustration.
Literally, the Knight of Cups tarot card refers to many things, not the least of which is “a person who has trouble discerning where the truth ends and lies begin.” Christian Bale plays Rick, a screenwriter searching for meaning in L.A., but whose hedonistic lifestyle seems to keep him from finding himself. He hardly speaks to the people around him, and he interacts with his surroundings like a detached observer instead of a power player. Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, and Freida Pinto play some of the women that become more than just pretty objects to him, but it’s hard to tell how invested he is in any of them by the end of the film.
Everyone moves as though they’re suspended in a living collage or painted landscape, and the things they say are rarely said face-to-face, or are even happening in real time. Flashbacks are folded into pieces of voiceover and collide with various shots of urban and desert scenes, and the actors pop up in different moments of Rick’s life, out of order, without any real plot or sense of consequence. This is not a total criticism, though, because the end result is kind of a god-like perspective that allows you to absorb Malick’s imagery in a way that both lulls and stimulates your senses without having to think about it.
As a writer-director, Malick is known for pushing the envelope – especially in the last few years – towards introducing mainstream audiences to more art-based conceptual ideas. His films have become a study of visuals, and the intersection of Hollywood actors can make them feel more glamorous but less accessible, as though you’re watching a cleverly executed piece of advertising. Voiceover can wear a bit thin, especially when it tries to be profound, or when it’s delivered with a Shakespearean tone by Ben Kingsley or Brian Dennehy, who says, “As we get older, we think our lives will start to make sense. But you get to this age and you realize you’re just as lost as you ever were.”
In the constant flicker of fleeting moments, Knight of Cups, though beautiful, feels unfinished. An ending is offered, and the audience is obviously aware of it, but it’s like the actors leave you with the feeling like they’re waiting for something to happen, for something to play, instead of being lost in the vastness of Malick’s latest experiment.
Knight of Cups is now playing in theatres.