“Knight of Cups” is a gorgeous film! This comes as no surprise seeing as how it’s a Terrence Malick film. He’s brought along his trusty cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who aided him in capturing the beauty of life in films such as “The Tree of Life” and “To the Wonder.” Here is no different, with exquisite shots of the sun glistening down on the beach and the simple pleasures of Mother Nature still in effect despite being trapped in an aquarium. The day I find a film shot by Lubezki to be flat and uninspired is the day I dread.
The day I found a Terrence Malick film that didn’t resonate with me was also the day I dreaded and it’s unfortunately a day I encountered. “Knight of Cups” is that film, I’m sad to report, though its disappointment doesn’t come from a lack of trying. It’s a result of a failed experiment, one that closely examines the vanity of Hollywood. Even when dealing with death and despair, Malick always had an eye for finding the beauty of it all. That’s not his objective this time around; he’s searching for the emptiness that engulfs the Hollywood scene.
From a technical standpoint, he finds it. “Knight of Cups” is as empty and devoid of life as Hollywood is, at least when solely focused on that aspect of the story. Said aspect follows the driftlessness of Rick (Christian Bale), a Hollywood screenwriter. He embodies the tarot card in which this film is named after, an intelligent idealist who is easily manipulated via his boredom. It doesn’t take long for the narcissism of Hollywood to engulf him, trapping him in the neverending cycle of vainglory. The change and excitement represented by the Knight of Cups follows him into each fling of his.
Each romance of Rick’s ends in the same result: abandonment. The difference in each is in their execution. His failed marriage to Nancy (Cate Blanchett) is a result of complacency. His attraction to the stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer) is simply out of lust and curiosity. Same goes for the various models that act as nothing more than a notch on his headboard. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) comes closest to winning his heart thanks in part to her striking similarity to him. She too grows bored easily, with her marriage flailing because of this. She is Rick’s greatest love and challenge, with her mistress ways becoming all the more tantalizing for him.
To credit Rick’s polyamorous ways to the ostentation of Hollywood would be a cheat. His inability to emotionally connect comes from a lack of trust and a fear of loss. The former developed via his rocky relationship with his father, Joseph (Brian Dennehy), whom we only ever see yelling. I say see and not hear because the soundtrack, more times than not, drowns out his wailing. This is to represent Rick’s dismissive approach, who tunes anyone out that feeds him negative energy. This is symbolic of the bubble in which Hollywood resides in, but also in highlighting why Rick is drawn to it. He’s used this method of dislodgement to cope with life’s struggles. To find an industry that thrives on it is a blessing for him.
The fear of loss comes from the recent death of his brother. This triggers the driftlessness, causing Rick to meander through life aimlessly trying to find a purpose. He’s become almost a mute, with his thoughts playing out as narration to guide us through his aimlessness. Other characters, such as his ex-wife, dutifully informs him (and the audience) of his mental breakdown. Now, more than ever before, does he find solace in loveless relationships.
The reasoning for the disenchantment of “Knight of Cups” is twofold. The first is in the uncomfortable marriage between beauty and vanity. Malick’s zest for life may seem like a good counterpoint for the conceitedness of Hollywood, but the juxtaposition of the two is flimsy. The smugness needs a cynical edge in order for it to work, one found in David Lynch’s “Maps to the Stars” or David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis.” Malick never finds that cynicism, instead opting for emptiness. Hollywood is showcased as a cold void of life, in turn alienating the viewer. Purposeful or not, it’s a turnoff. It’s more in line with Sophia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” which too was plagued by the lack of cynicism.
The second reasoning is in the experimentation of working with a minute script. Most of the film was made up on the spot, with next to no dialogue written. The script, much like Malick’s interpretation of Hollywood, is barren. This wouldn’t be the first time a film worked off of a script such as this. Most recently, Jeremy Gardner & Christian Stella incorporated this approach into their ribald dark comedy, “Tex Montana Will Survive!” That film was able to coast on the adlibbing of its star (also Jeremy Gardner), with humor intricately placed into the blank spaces. Such is not the case here, as there’s not much to bounce off of. This is purposeful, but not fruitful.
Malick also utilizes the technique of torpedoing in his experimentation. This is the act of throwing in an actor and/or event unbeknownst to the performer(s) in order to elicit a natural response. Again, this works best in a comedy where the act would most likely garner a humorous reaction. Here, it musters up nothing more than perplexity, once again the purpose, once again not fruitful.
I appreciate and commend the attempts of creativity made by Terrence Malick. Anytime a filmmaker takes chances is admirable, especially during the later stages of one’s career. Appreciation doesn’t breed enjoyment and experimentation doesn’t equal success. In the case of “Knight of Cups,” it doesn’t attain either.
Final Rating: C+