Even long-time fans of Terrence Malick’s particular style of experimental filmmaking might find his latest effort Knight of Cups verging toward self-indulgence.
Staring Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman, Knight of Cups is a swirling, dream-like descent into the world of a washed-up Los Angeles screenwriter, Rick (Bale), as he meanders through love affairs, casual sexual encounters, and hedonistic L.A. parties. The title is a direct reference to a card in a tarot deck, and each of the eight parts of the film – save the last – is named after a tarot card. All are meant to explore Rick’s relationship with a person in his life.
Like much of Malick’s work, the film relies heavily on an intricate tapestry to symbolism, voice-over narration, and surreal visuals. The end result is a non-linear viewing experience that feels like two hours spent with an abstract painting.
Unfortunately, by the end credits, I still wasn’t sure what exactly Malick had been hoping to accomplish with Knight of Cups. The combination of classical themes and references to The Pilgrim’s Progress didn’t come together in a way that felt meaningful or purposeful. Maybe it’s because the idea of the entertainment industry as a cesspool of meaningless luxury and detachment has been explored to death. Maybe it’s because the film’s portrayal of damaged, hollow masculinity is at best derivative and at worst cliché. At first glance, the film is a visual wonder. But the longer it goes on, the clearer it becomes that there is an acute lack of substance in Knight of Cups despite its aesthetic pyrotechnics.
It is particularly discomforting that the women in this film are so decidedly superficial. Not only do they exist purely to perform specific roles in Rick’s emotional and creative odyssey, but they also take on a temporary, even disposable, quality. Rather than being spiritual or philosophical guides, these women are flavours and objects – they are easily exchanged for one another. Even when we are given insight into their thoughts or feelings, the insight doesn’t actually tell us anything about the women themselves. They are beautiful creatures to be visually dissected and admired. Their purpose, and personhood, begins and ends with their ability to “inspire” Rick.
The problem isn’t entirely one of gender. All of this would be fine if it were clear that it was part of a larger commentary on the way that Rick’s world – a world of wild parties and extravagance – dehumanizes those that participate in it. But, it isn’t. There are several moments in the film that seem to be moving toward these ideas, but it is ultimately never able to make the philosophical leap. The way that women are characterized in Knight of Cups is indicative of a larger problem in the film as a whole, which is that the stakes are never high enough.
There is no reason why a viewer should connect or sympathize with Rick. There is no reason why we should be personally involved in his journey. There is nothing that this film is saying about contemporary masculinity or the state of existing in the modern entertainment industry that hasn’t been said before. No matter how much you might love Terrence Malick’s style or his previous work, give Knight of Cups a pass.
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