An enigmatic, esoteric, existential tone poem dedicated to the simulacra of the modern American West, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups should come with a warning: “Best for Malick devotees.”
Not that the casual moviegoer couldn’t find value in this meditation on life, love and the modern architecture of Los Angeles, but it’s possible you’ll be much more forgiving of its opaque whimsy and hazy narrative if already enamored of Malick’s lyrical style.
The structure is at once loose and oppressive. A sketchy portrait of a Hollywood screenwriter, Rick (Christian Bale), in the throes of some kind of mid-life crisis, the film drops in on moments of Rick’s life, soundtracked with voice-over provided by the different characters (and Ben Kingsley) murmuring vague musings about souls, love and lust.
Structure is imposed in the form of titles named after the cards of the tarot — “The Hanged Man,” “The Moon,” “Death.” As an audience member attuned to traditional movie design, you’ll thirst for a scrap of dialogue. Malick mostly denies this, letting conversations drift to the background, inner thoughts and philosophical opining offering a two-hour guided meditation through Rick’s life.
At the moment, Rick’s life involves a lot of romping. He romps about L.A. and Las Vegas with beautiful woman after beautiful woman, an endless parade of gorgeous movie stars whom he drives around in convertibles, takes to the beach to run and shriek in the waves, and lolls about with on hotel sheets. It’s exhausting, all of that forced glee.
In scenes of Vegas clubs and raves and pool parties on the roof of the Standard Hotel, shot with a fisheye lens (quite beautifully, by three-time Oscar winner Emmanuel Lubezki), you start to wonder: Is this what Malick thinks is hip and edgy? Maybe it would have been in 2005.
But Knight of Cups is not a gleeful romp by any means. Rick is merely a cipher who drifts through Hollywood, dragged along by the hand by his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), his brother (Wes Bentley), his new girlfriends (Imogen Poots, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas, Freida Pinto), his agents, et al.
His own sense of discomfort and unease at his lack of direction rises off the screen and seems to cloud the room with a miserable funk. Malick’s feelings about the excesses of womanizing and Hollywood seem clear. But are they profound? Only fleetingly so.
It’s a problem of subjective identification. Malick offers no way in to Rick, who utters maybe two or three diegetic lines of dialogue. We hear his voice as he mumbles on the voice-over along with every other character in the movie, but other than as a blandly handsome white guy, Malick presents nothing for us to hook into Rick.
As for the female characters, they’re objects to be pursued, bodies as set dressing for the modern architecture, or emotional nuclear bombs.
It’s ostensibly a Hollywood satire, and a scene of a Fellini-esque party in a lavish mansion underscores this theme best, hosted by a coaxing Antonio Banderas, who flits about the array of anonymous women cooing creepily about “flavors … raspberry, strawberry.” The scene elicits feelings of disgust, but there’s no commentary, no identification, no clarity.
That could be said for the whole of Knight of Cups, which only evokes a nebulous sense of lovingly photographed ennui.
Exclusive: Angelika Dallas; Angelika Plano
Knight of Cups
☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Terrence Malick
Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley
Rated: R (nudity, sexuality, strong language)
Running time: 118 min.