There is no denying the cinematic power that director Terrence Malick holds. Nobody carries the camera much like him, and while he goes for a few more experimental methods in his latest film, Knight of Cups, the core of his style is still dominant. In Malick’s most recent stream-of-consciousness film, he dives into the swimming minutia of Hollywood celebrity life, and while it brings up a bevy of interesting insights into this world, the ultimate point of the film feels as lost and listless as Malick’s newest main character.
Led by Christian Bale, Knight of Cups follows Rick — a Hollywood screenwriter — as he maneuvers his way through the industry, linking with his relationships with various women and a contentious one with his estranged father (Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley).
As much of Malick’s work, the film’s structure is fluid and dictated more by the visuals rather than concrete story points. It does follow a plot as Rick has conversations with executives about the successes of his work, he has highs and lows in relationships with women played by Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, and Frieda Pinto (among others), and attempts to find coherence with his father, who seems more like a man remorseful and set to delve into self-pity about the lack of guidance he gave Rick and his brother when they were younger than really create any sort of true revelation towards becoming a better man or father.
Some of these work — the individual relationships with the women seem to have some uniqueness to them. Blanchett plays Nancy, who was Rick’s wife at one time and seems to have one of the more personal and blossomed affairs with him. Portman is a woman Rick has a brief affair with while Imogen Poots and Frieda Pinto seem to be more flings that give Rick a means to escape his own life with Poots’ character getting to the heart of Rick and what Malick is trying to say through this film — Rick is a man interested more in the experience of life rather than engaging in these moments.
Maybe this is what draws Malick to placing him in this world as a writer — someone who he sees as a person not exactly engaging in the experiences of life, but one who chronicles them as an outside force. Regardless, Bale plays Rick with a detachment that at first seems frustrating, but as the movie moves along, seems to clarify this point more and expose Malick’s greater point for this film.
For most of the movie, Bale does not speak at all or speaks sparingly — mainly just giving his name. As others speak around him and engage in the scene, he listless moves around and is a part of their actions, but never a driving force in them. As Poots mentions early in the film, he is interested more in these experiences rather than becoming an active player in his own life and the life of the others around him.
But for the things that Malick succeeds with in this film, there are a handful of misfires, especially with the relationship between Rick and his father and brother as well as the thin line tying the entire product together. To the first point, this back-and-forth that the three characters have seems misplaced and unnecessary to the greater scheme of the movie or even Rick as a character. While it seems like Malick is trying to give Rick’s listless behavior a source (his father), the scenes between them and the chaos that ensues does not clarify anything and keeps us from the stuff that is actually working (the relationships with women and the industry).
For most of the film, Malick gives Knight of Cups this almost parable-esque structure — trying to bait the audience into finding this to be a story with a lesson at the end, but for the most part, this goal floats away. In the final act, titled “Freedom,” Rick lacks any sort of unburdened escape and instead seems to be in yet another unemotional relationship with a woman similar to what he had with Pinto or Poots’ characters. It is unclear what sort of freedom Malick is alluding to because it seems like Rick is again confined to the small world he limits himself to. If the ending of this parable is that nothing changes and we stay the same, then freedom is an incorrect title and whatever Malick is going for is undefined.
Knight of Cups still works as a piece of art, regardless of these quips, and Malick is always an interesting director. Some find his work pretentious and incomprehensible, but the glorious element about cinema is that it allows for many avenues to tell a story. Some are more defined while some lack any sort of structure with no right or wrong way.
Malick tells stories his way and we can either enjoy or dismiss them. I find that to be the most endearing quality of his work. The passion is there and while they don’t always work for me, there is something to revere in them and a journey to always take.