Combining auteur filmmaking Terence Malick with powerhouse performers Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman should, in theory, have resulted in cinematic fireworks. Instead, Knight of Cups is a damp squib, its arresting visuals an artistic smokescreen for a barely-there narrative that is unoriginal, insipid and downright alarming in its treatment of women.
Bale is tortured screenwriter Rick who, despite earning literal wads of cash writing for Hollywood is desperately unhappy. Searching for meaning he roams the desert, clashes with his addict brother (Wes Bentley) and inept father (Brian Dennehy) and embarks on a series of liaisons with a procession of impossible women who, it is suggested, help him discover his true self.
Yet – as indicated by the film’s final uttered word, ‘begin’ – there’s no sense that Rick has embarked on any kind of journey, nor even gone full circle. He ends the film as he starts it; narcissistic, moping and dull. On screen he barely moves, instead looking wistfully into the middle distance or staring at one lithe body or another, while characters rotate around him. His angry interactions with his father, compounded with frequent images of children both real and imagined, hint at fraternal discord, but this idea is never given any real weight.
Neither, too, is Rick’s search for genuine connection in a landscape of artifice; while it is set in the gaudy, unreal worlds of Los Angeles and Los Angeles, Rick is too much of an empty vessel, and the characterisation too abstract, to lend weight to this theme. An on-the-nose sequence set at a Hollywood party is the closest the film comes to making a cognitive point, although ultimately it is simply another location to ogle a bevy of beautiful women.
Indeed, the film’s sharpest focus falls on the female form, women cavorting, frolicking, seducing in various states of undress, often shot from the neck down. Malick may appreciate their physicality, but clearly knows – or cares – little of their character. A stripper (Teresa Palmer) philosophises on stage, a model (Frieda Pinto) stretches languidly in front of the camera, and so on, and so on.
Blanchett and Portman, as Rick’s wife and lover respectively, are given a little more to work with but are, like the rest, reduced to nothing more than their sexuality, interchangeable ciphers for Rick’s longing and anguish, wanting nothing more than to make him happy. Whether nymphs, paramours or mothers, these are women hewn entirely from adolescent fantasy. That it may be a conscious creative decision – ‘No one cares about reality any more,’ Karen intones – is no excuse for such lazy misogyny.
Yes, the film looks stunning, creatively and evocatively lensed by master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who turns Malick’s ideas into a visual feast. Narratively, however, it is an endurance test. For all its professions of originality, it is yet another self-indulgent story of an entitled man’s journey to enlightenment, in which it is the responsibility of the women around him to provide the path to his happiness and not a damn thing more. As such, Knight of Cups becomes the very thing it professes to satirise, a gilded chalice that entirely empty vessel.
UK release: May 6, 2016
An edited version of this review was originally published by The List