Knight of Cups follows writer Rick (Christian Bale) on an odyssey through the playgrounds of Los Angeles and Las Vegas as he undertakes a search for love and self. Even as he moves through a desire-laden landscape of mansions, resorts, beaches and clubs, Rick grapples over complicated relationships with his brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy). His quest to break the spell of his disenchantment takes him on a series of adventures with six alluring women: rebellious Della (Imogen Poots); his physician ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett); a serene model Helen (Freida Pinto); a woman he wronged in the past Elizabeth (Natalie Portman); a spirited, playful stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer); and an innocent Isabel (Isabel Lucas), who helps him see a way forward.
Rick moves in a daze through a strange and overwhelming dreamscape — but can he wake up to the beauty, humanity and rhythms of life around him? The deeper he searches, the more the journey becomes his destination.
The synopsis for Terrence Malick’s new film (above) has drawn sharp criticism for its description of female characters (“serene model” “playful stripper”) who exist only as reflections of the male character played by Christian Bale.
But that’s hardly the film’s only issue.
The truth is that it’s not really a film at all. It’s a series of artfully shot scenes featuring Bale cavorting with beautiful women – among them Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Teresa Palmer and Freida Pinto – in front of photogenic backgrounds. This would have made a beautiful coffee table book or high-end photo shoot for the kind of fashion magazine you flip through while you’re waiting to get your hair cut. The beauty of the film and its cast is undeniable. But having the actors pose in front of a series of beautiful backdrops does not a movie make, even when those backdrops are iconic Hollywood locations.
Without any plot to speak of, Malick’s renowned lyricism is left to run wild here and the result is we never care what happens to any of these people. We admire the actors, including Brian Dennehy as Rick’s father, and it’s fun to see random cameos like Antonio Banderas jumping into a pool at an over-the-top Hollywood party. We learn in throwaway bits that Bale and Wes Bentley had a brother that killed himself. Bale was married to Blanchett and they never had children. There’s an earthquake. Bale is robbed. But don’t mistake any of these blips for an actual plot.
I’m not asking for a generic three-act structure or for the characters to learn Valuable Life Lessons. But throw us a bone with some plot. Malick’s previous collaboration with Bale, 2005’s The New World about Pocahontas and her love for both Captain Smith and John Rolfe, was both unbelievably gorgeous and moving. Malick is certainly capable of telling a compelling story and creating interesting characters, but he simply threw that out the window with this film.
Bale’s character Rick (we’re told he’s a screenwriter) lives on the beach in Santa Monica, which means he’s endlessly playing in the surf with his various lovers. The women also get a ride in his beautiful vintage convertible and inevitably end up chasing each other around an anonymous hotel room. Rinse, repeat. We get it, the women in Rick’s life are interchangeable. He’s not making a real connection with anyone. But while the audience is working overtime to read some sort of meaning into these meaningless scenes, he’s also failing to make a real connection with us.
Just as this is not really a film, it has no real characters, just actors doing bits. Each scenario plays out like an acting exercise. It’s painfully obvious there was no script and that everything was improvised, so clunky lines like “We are not leading the lives we were meant to lead,” and “So this is what we are, a fire,” fall with an audible thud. Bale contributes the most cringe-worthy dialogue, at one point uttering, “I can’t remember the man I wanted to be” and at another “Ahh, life.”
Rick takes on a high-profile, high-paid writing gig, but we never see him writing. He takes a few cryptic meetings at scenic buildings in Century City, aimlessly wanders various studio backlots, and attends a series of decadent parties. We’re supposed to see he’s tempted, he’s struggling, but all we see is that Christian Bale has great cheekbones.
While it seems clear that Malick intends this to be his La Dolce Via, in which reporter Marcello Mastroianni dallies with a series of beautiful women in a commentary on the decadence of modern society, this falls far, far short of Fellini’s masterpiece.
Or maybe Malick wanted this to be his 8 ½, Fellini’s 1963 magnum opus in which a director cannot focus on his new film while juggling his wife, mistress and various actresses. It also has one of the most famous dream sequences in which he talks to his dead father. Fifty years ago, that was revolutionary. Today, it’s a tiresome cliché, especially when your whole film is that unmoored. In one of my favorite sequences in 8 ½, Mastroianni floats high above the earth, then realizes his leg is still tethered below. Does he want to float away from all his responsibilities or is this responsibility the only thing keeping him spinning off into oblivion? It’s a beautifully realized metaphor in Fellini’s film.
Sadly, Knight of Cups has absolutely nothing to tether or ground it.
At the screening I attended, a friend muttered, “Well, that’s two hours of my life I’ll never get back.” Another friend walked out of a SAG screening 30 minutes in after 15 other people had already walked out.
I envy them.