It’s a credit to director Terrance Malick that he can keep a viewer sympathetic for an attractive, rich, Hollywood screenwriter who gets to date the likes of Imogen Poots, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, and Teresa Palmer, among other beautiful and talented and successful women, as long as he can.
Knight of Cups, Malick’s latest, ethereal, flowing, narrative-ignoring drama sets itself up in a precarious position from the start, but does well to make us care about Christian Bale’s writer Rick and his melancholic existence. Just not for too long. Sure, Rick has a strayed relationship with his criminal brother, and his father is ill, but these superficial life look-ins are overshadowed by a slew of women with whom Bale’s writer dallies, liaises, and beds. Oh, did I mention Cate Blanchett?
Obviously these women aren’t playing themselves: Blanchett is his wife, Portman is someone else’s wife, Pinto is a model, Palmer a stripper, Poots an escort, and Isabel Lucas, well, she shows up naked in his pool, so there you go. They are characters yes, but Malick’s directorial style, which forgoes dialogue for inner monologues, which focuses on the periphery as opposed to the center, which plays with time and space and looks for the most serious, meaningful feelings in nature and minutiae, detracts from the viewer feeling much for characters. Eventually they become the actors playing them, and the entirety of the film becomes more abrasive and tedious.
Knight of Cups finds many similarities with Malick’s previous work, To the Wonder, which saw Ben Affleck as a man also searching for meaning and love, but who was grounded in a more relatable reality. Or at least one that audiences could care about. That dealt with love across cultures, about settling down and questioning faith while worrying about work and livelihood, all things that in fact threaten romance and relationships.
Here it’s unclear what threatens our writer, other than his own self-sabotage or simply being sad-sack unable to express his emotions (‘I liked this story better when it was Californication’ is a thought that came to mind). Bale does well to keep Rick from being irritable – smiles don’t seem forced – but he’s certainly not winning, especially while wandering a lavish party thrown by a charming seducer (Antonio Banderas) when everyone else is having fun. Sorry to all the Have-Nots; Rick is a Have, but wants to be a Have-More I guess.
Malick divides the film up into chapters, giving them names that seem both overt and esoteric at the same time, and it’s one of many filmmaking devices that grow tired as the story progresses through its two-hour run time. He also prefaces the film with a fable about a prince who falls into a trance and forgets about his existence when amongst the people. He drinks from a cup, sayeth Malick.
He’s a director that makes the viewer work, which isn’t at all a bad thing. It’s just the case with Knight of Cups that unfortunately he doesn’t make you care that much.