Like the deck of tarot cards that provides its narrative spine, Knight of Cups is shuffled up and dealt out with a witchy randomness. Making a mockery of Syd Field’s rules of screenwriting (where’s the inciting incident?), the film offers stories of sprawling entropy. Whether that’s enough to sustain an entire movie will be decided by the viewer’s appetite for moony maundering in gorgeous settings.
Like other recent Terrence Malick movies, Knight of Cups is an oblique odyssey of self-examination shadowed by wonderment and pained memories of family. The seeker here is Rick, a screenwriter whose professional success hasn’t translated into happiness. Christian Bale plays him as a standoffish grump with impeccably mussed hair and suit jackets. His default position is numbed and conflicted, except when he’s trying to get various waifs into bed with him. “I could crack you out of your shell,” offers one of his lovers, “make you suffer.” But before and after her, Rick remains passive, brooding, and wrestling with a dark father figure and painful past.
But if much of Knight of Cups scans like every Malick film since The New World, the auteur of misdirection and introspection this time makes his intentions clear from the beginning. The first voice we hear is John Gielgud’s, reading The Pilgrim’s Progress and so announcing, in effect, that we are about to witness a lost soul’s journey to understanding. His allegory is not only Christian, however, as Rick receives advice from both a kindly Catholic priest (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and a teacher of Zen (writer Peter Matthiessen), who counsels being calm and in the moment, “Everything is there, perfect and complete.”
Rick’s journey is structured around the tarot cards that he sees when visiting a fortune-teller. Serving as the film’s chapter titles (The Hanged Man, Death, The Hermit, and so on), the cards also signal his serial encounters with women. The chronology is difficult to parse, but Nancy (Cate Blanchett) appears to be Patient Zero. Rick’s scenes with Nancy are the ones that most closely approximate domestic stability. They share a house together, their interactions aren’t so puppies-in-love as his later infatuations, and, as a doctor, Nancy has a grown-up’s job. Rick’s other infatuations are more fleeting, with the fashion model Helen (Freida Pinto), the model-ish millennial Karen (Teresa Palmer), who is forever flinging her arms out and spinning in showy ecstasy, or the unavailable, married Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). The one constant in each liaison is a desire to twirl about on the beach while smiling wide into Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera as it does swooping parabolas around the couple.
An old Hollywood hand, Rick is cynical about just such movie conventions. “See the palm trees?” he asks in a mordant voiceover. “They tell you anything is possible.” Rick’s apathy radiates off him in dark waves whenever he’s pursued by an agent, studio head or business manager. There’s almost a charming fantasy to these scenes, which imagine a filmmaking world in which writers are chased down as though they were A-list stars or directors by people looking to throw money at them.
At the same time, the Los Angeles in Knight of Cups is a familiar one, where the housing is either elegantly minimalist mansions or Venice Beach apartments, the cars are all convertibles, and the women stick-thin, gorgeous, and limned with a soulful sadness. A random-seeming assortment of actors float through as background, from Antonio Banderas to Kevin Corrigan, as do Hollywood-adjacent types like fashion drill sergeant Kelly Cutrone. Rick seems substantially enriched by this glamorous and deadened, Bret Easton Ellis-inspired world, but also barely connected to it. He floats through most of his interactions with a noble indifference as though he truly were the “young prince” mentioned in the mythical story (taken from the Gnostics’ Acts of Thomas) that makes up one of the film’s competing voiceovers.
If Rick is the prince of the kingdom, then his father would be king. There is something Lear-like in the muttering wreck that is his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy), not to mention the black shadow that his presence throws across Rick’s life, much like the pall cast by Brad Pitt over the otherwise happy family in Tree of Life. With the introduction of Wes Bentley, playing Rick’s rambling and possibly cleaned-up addict of a brother, and references to a tragic incident from the recent past, the film provides some hint of what has kicked Rick’s anomie and epic disinterest into high gear.
Needless to say, however, Knight of Cups doesn’t explain causes and effects anywhere in its infinity loop. Malick’s self-indulgences push the limits of just how far a film can coast on unanswerable koans, improvisational pop-profundities, and Lubezki’s poetic camerawork. And yet, it casts a beautiful baffling spell, nonetheless.