“I spent thirty years not living life, but ruining it for myself and others. I can’t remember the man I wanted to be… where did I go wrong?” In Knight of Cups, Christian Bale plays Rick, a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter, whose existential crisis is at the heart of this cinematic artwork by writer/director Terrence Malick. The film draws inspiration from and at times quotes directly from religious texts like Pilgrim’s Progress, and The Hymn of the Pearl. Both are stories about quests to find redemption, meaning, salvation. Rick’s search is one and the same.
The film is divided into eight chapters. All but the last (called “Freedom”), refer to tarot cards, like “The Hanged Man”, “The Moon”, “Judgement”, and “Death”. In each chapter, Rick is changed or challenged by characters he encounters, often women he has brief entanglements with. There is almost no dialogue; the little there is, is often drowned out by ambient sound, like crashing waves, or wind. Rick is the primary narrator, but the six women who come into and drift out of his life, are also each given a brief voice, though most of them remain nameless.
This is a work of human interiority: the audience is privy to the unvoiced, half-whispered thoughts of the characters. This chasm in communication between the characters – that which is left unsaid – becomes a metaphor for the postmodern human, and the root of collective existential crises. “You’re still the love of my life. Should I tell you that?” Rick’s wife (Cate Blanchett), in a heart breaking moment, asks herself, looking at her estranged husband. “I see how you look at me. You think I could make you crazy. Crack you out of your shell. Make you suffer. I think you’re weak. You don’t want to love. You want a love experience,” a Hollywood starlet thinks, during her affair with Rick. These encounters, though often characterised by ‘meaningless’ sex, are imbued with meaning, presenting Rick with more questions, but also, with some enlightenment.
The visuals have a fabulist, almost surreal feel, the mark of one of the best living cinematographers today, Emmanual Lubezki (who just won an Oscar for The Revenant AND won last year for Birdman). He captures the incongruity of fragmented human experiences and memories, pieces of a puzzle that will never fit together. There are haunting shots of Rick walking through empty studio lots, contrasted by the hedonistic and wild LA parties he also attends. There are scenes that depict his deep bond with his brother, Barry (Wes Bentley), a recovering drug addict – “I just want to feel something”, he tells Rick. There are moments that show Rick’s severely strained relationship with this father and brief (happy?) moments from his childhood.
In all this, the perpetual, eternal search for meaning continues. “See the palm trees,” Rick thinks as he speeds across a concrete highway. “They tell you anything is possible. You can be anything. Do anything. Start over. You don’t.” As in his other masterpiece, The Tree of Life, Malick recreates the human experience onto screen with that pervading sense of both futility and hope.
Rick is the Knight of Cups, the tarot character that refers to someone who is sensitive and “pursues his thoughts and fantasies, and intuitively attunes to the needs of others. He may signify a lover who does not wish to commit, who is attractive, but passive. He does what he believes in, and is considered a charmer” (Salem Tarot). This is a role that relies heavily on the ability to create perfect stream of consciousness monologues that aren’t too obscure, or mundane. Malick didn’t give Christian Bale a script, just a character description. Bale delivers.
The ensemble cast includes Natalie Portman (who plays a married woman with whom Rick had an intense love affair), Antonio Banderas (a Hollywood playboy), and Freida Pinto, a (surprisingly) perceptive model.
The Knight of Cups is a layered film about imagination and memory, inherently imperfect and subjective. It’s become a divider of critics: some viewing it as aimless and empty; others, see it as metaphor. I’m of the latter view. This is one for lovers of film as art, not as escapist entertainment.
Director/writer: Terrence Malick
Cast: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Wes Bentley, Antonio Banderas
Rating: 4 out of 5