Christian Bale goes from playing one Dark Knight to another, a dark knight of a man weighed down by his own brooding and self-imposed burdens as he meanders and moseys through what one would surmise to be a personal journey of self-discovery, in Terrence Malick’s new film, Knight of Cups, opening limited in theaters today.
Knight of Cups is truly arthouse cinema. This is not a commercial movie, which means there’s a different sort of story unfurling here not typically seen or expected in mainstream movie-going – which, full disclosure, is also to say that there’s barely a whiff of a story here at all, and is rather a montage of aesthetically beautiful visuals and sequences. It’s certainly an example of fine film-making and craftsmanship, though perhaps to most audiences, it will be that, and nothing more.
The journey and story here, in this beautifully shot film (photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, hot off of his historic third consecutive win for The Revenant) is one of existential crisis in this most modern of ages. What does it mean to live in a world of such available opulence and opportunity, and what does it mean when all of those things mean nothing in the face of un-satisfaction? How does one escape, when one’s entire world is the offering of pleasures and escape?
Written (with no official script) and directed by Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups is able to pose these philosophic questions and stir these high-minded thoughts, as his more recent films (The Tree of Life) feel more like abstract compositions that allow audiences to project and infer meaning themselves. The film tells the story of a Hollywood screenwriter, Rick, (Christian Bale) who, sullen and silent, wanders and moseys and hangs his head through the streets of Los Angeles, all the while evoking something between despair and acceptance with breathy voice-over hovering above every moment. Despair and acceptance of what?, you may ask? We see that Rick’s father (Brian Dennehy) may have neglected, or failed to give something to his sons, the other son being a more manic LA type (Wes Bentley).Rick floats through endless Hollywood Hills parties and nightclub raves like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future combined, in a sort of fever dream reality. All this, in chaptered storytelling, gives some semblance of structure to the thing. The tarot card motifs and solar and lunar imagery abound here all serve to show that this knight is fated to seek this treasure, this answer, in a world full of distraction and vapidity. The mystique of the goddesses further serve his noble quest, and the film has incredible talent to play these roles. Cate Blanchett, Teresa Palmer, and Natalie Portman all pop up in chapters of Rick’s life, each revealing a part of his spiritual lacking in different ways. It’s a film constructed through the male gaze and understanding of life as he knows it, which will likely further split audience reactions.
Knight of Cups must be regarded for exactly what is is: a work of art. A work of art, in that it holds no commercial value and is rather the work of a singular artist commenting a singular vision and making a grand statement about the universe at large, even if it’s just his own statement (and even if this statement feels as empty and hollow as the world it’s commenting on). Fans of Malick’s previous films will know this – others must be warned beforehand, lest they expect something resembling a comfortable narrative to watch.
It’s a tough thing to make aimless wandering exciting to watch, or even empathic, and Knight of Cups will deter people from enjoying it for that reason. It burns ever-slowly, as we the audience are merely along for the ride, moment-to-moment, in which everything exists in the ultra-present of modern day living. Ultimately, it all feels like this longing dream is too abstract to take any substantial meaning from. This knight will most likely continue to wander for the rest of his days, which makes Knight of Cups feel more like a ceaseless spinning of plates.
Knight of Cups is rated R for some nudity, sexuality, and language. 1 hr 58 min. Playing at The Landmark and ArcLight Hollywood.