In The Tree of Life, Jack (as played by Sean Penn) is a man lost in a hollow life, who over the course of a day (or perhaps even just an elevator ride) reflects on his youth and finds faith again. Rick (Christian Bale), the protagonist of Terrence Malick’s seventh film Knight of Cups, is on a similar search. There are many parallels to be drawn between Jack and Rick: each has a problematic relationship with his father, each had a brother who committed suicide, both of their searches end up on a beach (metaphorical, of course, as so often in Malick’s films), but above all both are successful in their respective fields (Jack in architecture, Rick in the film business) yet have a sense that something is missing. So they search. In Rick’s case, this means a reflection on his life and his past relationships. And just like in The Tree of Life, where Jack’s journey into his past is condensed in one day, in Knight of Cups Malick seems to be playing with time again: although the relationships he reflects on and the string of parties he attends clearly take place over a long period of time, Rick doesn’t age, doesn’t change, in fact seemingly doesn’t even change wardrobe. Are we watching the actual Rick in these scenes, is he really there, or is it the ‘lost’ Rick revisiting the scenes of his life in an almost out-of-body experience? The question this throws up is: was Rick really ever there? And it is this question that he is looking to answer over the course of the film. Is this it, is this my life? “Nobody cares about reality anymore,” says somebody in the film, and there are several such references to Rick’s world being a stage, not only verbal, but also when he walks the empty streets of the studio backlots or mingles at Hollywood parties where image is everything and substance means nothing. It’s a fake world, where everybody plays a role.
The only moments in which Rick shows humanity and depth are in his relationships with a diverse string of women (in order: Teresa Palmer, Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Natalie Portman, and a faceless actress – is it Isabel Lucas?), often shown completely separated from the ‘fake’ world of Hollywood. Even as these relationships are fleeting, the scenes convey how they have formed him over time. Love is the most important thing in life, Malick seems to say, it’s what drives us, shapes us, and gives our life meaning. Given his previous works, he is retreading familiar territory. Humanity and human relationships are themes he returns to time and time again, often placing them in a philosophical and/or religious frame. It is perhaps not even surprising then that he anchors Rick’s story to the mystical here: early in the film, Rick visits a tarot card reader, and after that encounter Malick cuts the episodes of Rick’s life into chapters named after specific cards. We probably should have expected that from the beginning, as the Knight of Cups is a tarot card itself: he represents romance, charm, imagination (note that Rick is a writer), whereas the reversed (or upside down) card represents the unrealistic, moodiness, and jealousy. These are certainly traits that Rick shows throughout his relationships in the film. The women in his life are depicted as The Moon (Palmer), Judgement (Blanchett), The Sun (Pinto), The High Priestess (Poots) and Death (Portman, who miscarries in the film), and while I won’t delve deeply into the world of tarot, these cards more or less represent the stages of his life and the relationships with said women (although Poots’ High Priestess, as a stripper no less, is stretching it). It is interesting then that the last chapter is preceded by Freedom, which is not a tarot card, and is the chapter in which Rick, much like Jack in The Tree of Life, surmounts a physical, natural barrier (the scenes in Knight of Cups clearly visually reference the earlier film here) to reach enlightenment of sorts. What it is that Rick finds exactly is left to the imagination, but the film ends with a POV shot driving down a desert road, seemingly taking Rick away from L.A. What realization has Rick come to?
The rest of the chapters focus on the two other major relationships in Rick’s life, those with his father and his brother (Brian Dennehy and Wes Bentley, respectively). Both are troublesome relations, and again both have parallels with The Tree of Life. To see Bale and Bentley taunting each other with a tennis ball, circling each other, is almost like watching young Jack and his brother teasing each other with a BB gun or tackling each other in the backyard. Likewise, Rick’s father is a man fallen from grace, disillusioned with the world, similar to Brad Pitt’s character in the earlier film. “You think at a certain age things will make sense, only to find out you’re as lost as before. That’s what damnation is,” says Dennehy at one point. This clearly speaks not just about him, but about his son as well. The lack of true communication is palpable, not only between Rick and his father, but between other characters. The 24-hour party people and Hollywood folk Rick encounters say a lot, but very little. And even in the scenes with the women in his life, the characters who speak (often the women) direct their words to an off-screen other. As often in Malick’s work, most of the dialogue is in voice-over, with various people spouting somewhat cryptic, but thematically fitting messages. “Let the light in others’ eyes guide you,” that sort of thing. In the case of Knight of Cups, these bouts of wisdom often feel too on the nose. If the imagery of a wandering Bale at yet another party isn’t enough, “Real life is so hard to find,” the voice-over tells us, as if that wasn’t clear. The film doesn’t need this, as Malick is perfectly able to relay the vapidity visually. Take the motif of the hordes of model-perfect, high-heeled young women at those parties. None of them have lines (at least no meaningful ones), they are just there to look pretty. This recurring image speaks volumes about the world Rick moves in, and no voice-over is needed to emphasize that. Malick’s insistence on it makes the film needlessly heavy-handed. It is what keeps Knight of Cups from reaching the masterpiece level of his magnum opus.
Yet it’s a step up from his previous film, To the Wonder, another exploration of a man in existential crisis (or two, if you count Javier Bardem’s Father Quintana), struggling to make his relationships work. That film feels like a bridge between The Tree of Life and Knight of Cups, in a trilogy dealing with big, hefty themes like religion and the meaning of life. The first film leaned heavily towards the religious side, while Knight of Cups focuses primarily on the existential, and To the Wonder is sort of dangling in the middle, a bit aimless. So even as Knight of Cups is probably the coldest, most aloof film of the three, not in the least because its characters and their struggles seem the most difficult for audience members to identify with, it makes a stronger impact than its predecessor because it is more focused, even if its resolution appears somewhat muddled.
Which isn’t to say that everything is crystal clear. This is a Terrence Malick film, after all, pregnant with symbolism and rife with philosophy. What, for instance, is the meaning of those many airplanes and helicopters that can be seen overhead in the course of the film? And why is Malick so seemingly obsessed with beaches, not only having Rick end up there, but having him live on the beach several times over the course of his life, and also experience his happiest moments there? What is the meaning of the priest’s words, late in the film (given Malick’s tendencies towards religious philosophy, we should probably look in that direction)? And why the recurrence of angel wings, either in word or as tattoo? Some of these symbols have strong religious undertones, and given that the film stresses that the answer to happiness and a meaningful life lies in love, and how Malick has linked religion to love before, these scenes feel like an extension of his previous two films, albeit more cryptic. Hardcore fans will revel in them, trying to ascribe meaning through obscure Kierkegaard references (which often hit the nail on the head, to be sure), but they might keep more causal viewers, if such people exist for Malick’s work, at arm’s length. Knight of Cups is at once a very accessible and a very diffuse film: the through-line is easy to follow, the tangents often bewildering. In short, it is Terrence Malick at his most Malickian. Which also means it is another visual feast, with Emmanuel Lubezki once again joining in (this is his fourth effort in a row with this director) to show why he is in a class of his own at the moment. Some of the shots are overwhelming in how they convey Rick’s sense of being lost. Lubezki has employed an extreme wide-angle lens before to conjure up alienation and isolation, but never as effectively as here.
In contrast, there is very little to talk about when it comes to the actors, who are mostly just there. This is not their fault, as outside of Bale’s lead character, none of them are fleshed out in the slightest. The fleeting nature of their relationships with Bale’s Rick makes the actresses especially little more than a vessel for shards of memory, with Malick’s habit of dropping away in mid-scene giving them very little to build a character on. The supporting men fare better, especially Dennehy, as they at least get something to work with, even if in Antonio Banderas’ case it is mostly party scenery to chew. The heavy lifting has to be done by Christian Bale, who is on screen for most of the film, yet his character is so despondent much of the time that his performance becomes very low key and subtle. But Malick’s films are hardly ever about the performances, as his characters are often either concepts or canvasses. Some actors fit that mould (Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life in particular comes to mind), others have more trouble with it, but seldom will they be the most remembered aspect of the film, and such will be the fate of Bale too. He is but a string in the next tapestry of ideas that Terrence Malick has woven. Knight of Cups is a film that will frustrate some audiences, but there is no denying that it is the work of a singular auteur.