Terrence Malick has earned the enviable reputation of an unadulterated, undeniable genius. His films attract the industry’s top talent based on his name alone. Knight of Cups boasts a great lineup including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Wes Bentley, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, and a long list of notable actors who make brief appearances. It also features the always-impressive work of Emmanuel Lubezki, who just set an Academy record by earning his third Oscar for Cinematography in as many years.
Christian Bale is Rick, a Hollywood writer facing an existential crisis. Rick is a blank slate – plenty of screen time, but restrained and quiet. He doesn’t have a last name; none of the characters do. Maybe they’re meant to be more like vessels than characters – a means by which to experience the nebulous philosophical inquiry that unfolds as the film progresses.
Knight of Cups is, typical of Malick, a largely sensory experience. There’s rarely any synchronized dialog or scenes that run from beginning to end with a clear purpose or build. Instead, voiceovers run above sequences that blend into one another, creating a fluid, non-linear narrative. The film hangs in front of you like a great piece of abstract art: It has a purpose that most likely eludes you, but is done with such deft craft and sincerity that it pierces your shell and affects you imperceptibly. And like abstract art, it will have different meanings for each viewer. As a whole, and for its parts. There are moments that come close to feeling profound, but they are mixed in with less successful sequences that feel like they are meant to be more meaningful than they actually are. Surely some viewers will find certain moments to be deeply affecting, while others will recall different moments in the same way.
While viewers ride along on Rick’s journey – which includes rooftop photoshoots, hedonistic Hollywood parties, familial conflict, and a series of failed relationships – they are treated to beautiful scenery throughout the Los Angeles area. Downtown warehouses, museums, piers, million-dollar condos with infinity pools. As has become a theme in Malick’s films, water plays a significant role in the visual language, with plenty of time spent watching the waves of the Pacific Ocean crest onto the sand while characters stand or frolic nearby. And even modest locations — like parking garages or diners — are visually exciting. But for some, the parts may be greater than their sum.
This film is a compilation of significant moments delivered in bits and pieces. Inner monologues run above the imagery to bring us inside the characters’ heads. Jump-cuts and montages fracture the important moments, blending plot points and character arcs with sensory elements. The sequences are visceral, fleeting, subjective, anchored in emotion. As Lubezki said at a post-screening Q&A, they feel like memories.
Not all viewers will identify with Rick, even though his journey for meaning is applicable to all. Malick puts us right alongside him — lost, confused, depressed, complacent — so we can feel our way through the film with him. Within his ethereal exploration, Malick is searching for a universal truth that can bring Rick back from his paralyzing limbo. And there is some indication that he finds it. With patience and a lack of cynicism, viewers who seek meaning from this film may be able to catch glimpses of it too, however subjective their conclusions might be.