It is perhaps fitting that Knight of Cups’ structure revolves around a set of tarot cards; vague, universal statements that seem to fit everyone’s personal experiences are writer-director Terrence Malick’s stock in trade. Malick has made a career of producing “philosophical” films that feature extended shots of beautiful landscapes shrouded in whispered poetic dialogue. As time has passed, however, this dialogue has become increasingly ethereal, to the point where it can, to all intents and purposes, mean almost anything. Naturally this is a point open to debate, but this reviewer is not convinced by the argument that this ambiguity is intended to allow the viewer to impose their own meaning, instead believing it to be the work of a hollow filmmaker who has lost his creative spark.
All this is applicable to Knight of Cups. The plot follows Christian Bale as Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter who has recently lost his brother to implied suicide. Throughout the film Rick attends various L.A. socialite events and interacts (all with some kind of sexual element) with numerous attractive women. He’s also miserable, apparently. The film takes great time to show us Rick living the stereotypical playboy life with money, booze and women. There’s a rather unclear implication that he has gone down this path due to his brother’s death, but one loses any sympathy for the character very quickly. One particularly egregious example features Rick feeling empty while attending a party so lavish and decadent it reminds the viewer of 18th Century French aristocracy. Part of this appears to be intentional, as Rick’s existential emptiness matches the hollow riches and rituals of the party. But, we are still supposed to feel sorry for a member of this corrupt society simply because he feels bad about his part in it.
There are a number of sections in which homeless and disabled people go to a doctor. One hopes that Malick’s intention here is to show the hypocrisy of Rick’s “man-pain” as these people with serious issues continue to smile, while his problems cause him to walk the world with a permanent scowl. This hope, however, is due to the ambiguity of the film which never allows it take a strong position on anything. Viewers would not be hard-pressed to understand this as a comparison, as saying Rick’s pain is the same as these disposed and disabled individuals. That is the problem with making a film as vague as Knight of Cups: anything can be made to say whatever the viewer wants it to. Elements such as the many naked women are probably intended to be a commentary on Hollywood’s attitudes towards the female form, but are equally explainable as sexist representations for the filmmaker’s own pleasure. There is an art to the production of an ambiguous film with a fine line between what is overly didactic and what is meaninglessly vague, an art which Malick seems unable to master.
This is the main focus of Knight of Cups and unfortunately the rest of its elements are never given any time to shine. The actors all seem awkward and confused as they mumble through their dialogue, with only Antonio Banderas giving an engaging performance in a small role as an unpleasant character. At least, however, he appears to have some energy; most of the cast, especially Bale, seem to be sleepwalking through the entire film.
The cinematography is also lacklustre. The beginning of the film teases interesting developments with an uncharacteristic stop-motion sequence, however the look of the film soon dissolves back into empty shots of landscapes (now incorporating urban settings) expected from Malick. When inside, the camera drunkenly lurches around the actors, in one sense following a free-flowing train of thought, making the film hard to focus on or interact with in another.
Knight of Cups believes itself to be probing deep philosophical issues through ethereal camerawork and dreamlike acting. But, like the Hollywood dream it attempts to critique, this is a hard belief to buy into.