Writer/director Terrence Malick is about as enigmatic a filmmaker as they come. After making two highly acclaimed films in the 1970s, he disappeared for 20 years before making The Thin Red Line in 1998. His output has increased dramatically in recent years, as Knight of Cups marks his third film in five years, with another possibly coming later this year.
Most of Malick’s work could be described as visual poetry, as he seems to have an adversarial relationship with the idea of an actual plot. This patience-testing style is at its height in Knight of Cups. The film’s logline — “A writer indulging in all that Los Angeles and Las Vegas has to offer undertakes a search for love and self via a series of adventures with six different women” — sounds straightforward, but it is anything but.
Christian Bale plays that writer, Rick, but only in the bare-minimum way, as Bale’s on-screen spoken lines number less than 50 — and that may be generous. There are an enormous amount of voiceover lines, but as they often consist of just a few words and fade in and out at random, it’s difficult to accurately attribute any of them to him.
It takes a good while to get used to the peculiar rhythms of Malick, who likes to throw in shots of trees, the sky, the universe, and other natural things, almost in lieu of actually showing his actors. And when he does bring in actors, it’s often without warning, in spite of the presence of title cards announcing a new chapter of the film.
If all of this sounds like cinematic torture, you’re probably right, as Malick’s films are definitely not for the masses. And yet, as time goes on, the film starts to make sense in a weird sort of way. We get glimpses of Rick’s strained relationships with his brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy), and his choices in women, which include Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Teresa Palmer, indicate interesting up-and-down arcs in his life.
One of the more fascinating scenes takes place at a party at a palatial Hollywood estate, hosted by Antonio Banderas, who may or may not be playing himself. Though, typical of the film, few actual lines are spoken, we do see celebrities like Jason Clarke, Nick Offerman, Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio, Joe Manganiello, and more. Rick’s interactions — or non-interactions — with them speaks volumes about his place in the world.
I can’t recommend Knight of Cups for anyone but cinephiles and Malick completists. However, the fact that Malick not only gets such an inexplicable film made, but also populates it with big-name actors, is a testament to the fact that there are people out there who actually understand what he’s trying to say.
I just can’t say I’m one of them.