Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has just won his third straight Oscar for “The Revenant,” and his work is easily the best thing about Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups.” In fact, it may be the only good thing about the film, which is often beautiful to look at but is yet another piece of pretentious vacuity from a one of today’s most overpraised directors, who seems to have taken the claims of some admirers that he’s a master auteur delivering profound messages entirely too much to heart.
Christian Bale is the unfortunate soul at the center of the film. He’s Rick, apparently a burned-out Hollywood screenwriter (or director—it’s difficult to tell), who wanders around Los Angeles, with a side trip to Vegas to add some visual pizzazz, musing in his depressed state about the trajectory of his life. In fragmentary sequences presented in non-chronological order, we watch him, in the throes of this existential crisis, trying to connect with his troubled brother (Wes Bentley) and his grizzled, passionate father (Brian Dennehy); hanging over their fraught relationship is the memory of the death of a third brother.
Rick also has encounters with a series of women. One is Della (Imogen Poots), a gamin-like sort who favors a pink wig and ultra-high-heeled shoes. Another is Helen (Freida Pinto), a model he links up with at a big party apparently hosted by Antonio Banderas (just one of the celebrity cameos sprinkled through the film). There’s also his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), a doctor with whom he apparently has a frostily antagonistic relationship, and Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), with whom he has an extra-marital affair that results in her becoming pregnant. All of these get their Big Moments, but none are particularly revealing. Neither is Rick’s dalliance with Karen (Teresa Palmer), an ebullient stripper, in Las Vegas; but at least that sequence allows for a bit of manic visual energy.
Malick tries to impose some order on the chaos by periodically including a voiceover of Ben Kingsley reading passages from John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century “Pilgrim’s Progress,” but there’s little apparent applicability of its allegorical representation of the Christian believer’s journey from sin to heavenly bliss to Rick’s experiences, even though Dennehy occasionally drops to his knees in prayer and Armin Mueller-Stahl shows up at the close to preach the contribution of suffering to salvation (a message a viewer might be prompted to take in cinematic terms). Reference is also made to an ancient fable about an eastern prince sent to the west by his father to find a perfect pearl, but diverted by locals who feed him a draught that makes him fall into a deep slumber and forget his mission. Presumably we’re supposed to think of Rick as having similarly forgotten his reason for living; certainly the idea that people haven’t embraced the right path in life is a refrain repeated endlessly in Bale’s baleful voiceovers and other characters’ snatches of dialogue—as when Della observes that we’re not leading the lives we’re “meant for” or Dennehy, in one of his few intelligible remarks, says that neither he or his son has figured out how to live. But in the moment a viewer might yearn for a few sips of that sleeping potion himself.
Another narrative device comes from the use of tarot cards—from one of which the film takes its title (which also hearkens back to that fable of the sleeping prince). The sequences are punctuated by captions bearing the names of particular cards that are meant to describe particular characters—the hermit for Rick’s father, the hanged man for his dead brother, the high priestess for a powerful woman, and the like. Once again the procedure seems more artificial than insightful.
But none of this frippery renders “Knight of Cups” any more coherent, or less banal. In essence it’s nothing more than an impressionistic portrait of malaise, ennui and angst that’s all too successful in conveying those feelings to an audience. Bale certainly puts them across in his portrayal of Rick, but it’s not an agreeable sight to watch the actor, drained of energy and spark, wandering desolately through settings that veer abruptly from the naturally beautiful to the sleazily vulgar and the simply drab. None of the other actors can do much with the predetermined paths Malick has fashioned for them either; even Blanchett, usually so adept at adding shading to her performances, manages nothing beyond a generic fury, and only Palmer adds a dash of vivacity to the proceedings.
And yet there remain the images Lubezki has captured, many of which would, if transferred to still form, do any museum wall proud. Even in this form, accompanied by snatches of classical music by the likes of Chopin, Debussy, Vaughan Williams, Pachelbel and Part (as well as a more prosaic score by Hanan Townshend), they carry an emotional impact the characters do not.
It’s unfortunate that they’re wedded to the vision of a filmmaker who doesn’t seem to have anything to say beyond the idea that we’re all lost and searching for fulfillment as human beings in a universe of awe and beauty (the picture begins with a shot of the aurora borealis from space)—and saying it over and over again. The result is a film that brings more exhaustion than enlightenment.