Ever since he ended his decades-long hiatus with “The Thin Red Line,” Terrence Malick has been very prolific as he keeps putting out one beautifully poetic film after another. He also remains a filmmaker people either love or hate as his work leaves audiences deeply polarized. His seventh film, “Knight of Cups,” is unlikely to change the perceptions people have of him, but those who admire him will find much to take in. It’s also a film which has what many of Malick’s films lack: a straightforward narrative.
“Knight of Cups” takes its name from the tarot card which, when held upright, represents change and new excitements especially of a romantic nature, and it can mean opportunities and offers. When the card is reversed, however, it represents unreliability and recklessness and indicates false promises. But moreover, the Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities, and offers, and who is constantly bored and in need of stimulation. This person is intelligent and full of high principles, but he is also a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged.
The knight of Malick’s film is Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter played by Christian Bale. When we first meet Rick, he looks to be living the high life as he attends parties in Los Angeles which look as decadent as they come, but while he looks to be enjoying himself, those famous Malick voiceovers reveal him to be a lost soul who finds he is not living the life he was meant to. From there he goes on a journey to find an escape from the emptiness he feels and discover more about himself.
The film is divided into chapters named after tarot cards as Rick engages in relationships with different women as he searches for love and a sense of self. We also get to see the troubled relationships he has with his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) who looks to have been driven insane by the hardships of life, and his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) whose life had been derailed by a drug addiction he has since gotten clean from. Throughout we get the usual Malick-isms of voiceovers, characters staring out into space and wanting to speak truthfully to those closest to them, and it’s all captured with a poetic beauty which continues to make Malick one of the more unique filmmakers working today.
Malick has the good fortune of working with the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who just won his third Oscar in a row for “The Revenant,” and Lubezki captures the decadent landscapes of Los Angeles and Las Vegas with an inescapable beauty they don’t always have in reality. But he and Malick also capture the banality of them which quickly infects Rick’s soul, and the scenes where Bale is swimming in the violent ocean and wandering through a barren wilderness illustrates how inescapable his loneliness is.
It is said Malick shoots his films without a screenplay and instead gives the actors a storyline to improvise off of. This puts actors on an emotional tightrope which challenges them in ways they don’t often get challenged on, and the cast of “Knight of Cups” more than rises to the occasion. Bale is one of those actors who never backs down from any acting challenge given to him, and he gives yet another compelling performance in a career full of them. It’s also great to see Brian Dennehy here as this is the kind of film role we don’t always see him in, and it serves to remind us of how powerful an actor he can be when given the right role.
The movie also features a number of remarkable actresses playing the various lovers of Rick, and they all stand out in their own individual ways. Cate Blanchett, Australia’s answer to Meryl Streep, plays Rick’s physician ex-wife who still feels a connection to him even though she can’t quite get through to him. Imogen Poots rivets as the rebellious Della, Teresa Palmer makes Karen a most spirited and playful stripper who can seduce anyone with what seems like little trouble, and Frieda Pinto is the definition of serenity as Helen.
But one performance I was especially impressed with was Natalie Portman’s as Elizabeth, the woman Rick had wronged. After all these years, Portman remains a wonderfully vulnerable actress who is incapable of faking an emotion. She makes you feel the pain Elizabeth goes through, and you can’t take your eyes off of her for one second.
“Knight of Cups” proves to have a more straightforward narrative than Malick’s other films, and that’s saying something. His last film, “To the Wonder,” was good, but it meandered all over the place as he couldn’t decide which story was the more important one to tell. This time, however, he manages to stay with Rick and his romantic adventures for the majority of the film’s running time. It does veer off slightly when we get introduced to Antonio Banderas who plays the ironically named Tonio, a playboy who loves the company of more than just one woman. Considering Banderas’ recent stormy divorce from Melanie Griffith, his part in this film feels a bit voyeuristic as it seems like he is simply playing himself and explaining why his marriage to her fell apart.
“Knight of Cups” doesn’t reach the cinematic heights of “The Tree of Life” or “Days of Heaven,” but it is still a must for Malick’s fans as few other filmmakers can make a movie the way he can. Some will call it self-indulgent and complain it focuses on individuals who have it a lot better than the working class of America, but for those who relate to the journey Rick takes here, it is an immersive experience which leaves you guessing as to the possibilities open to him at the film’s conclusion.
It’s also worth watching to see characters drive their cars on the empty roads of Los Angeles at night. Anyone who lives in Los Angeles knows the roads are never that empty during the day, so it’s nice to know they are not always a traffic nightmare.