Knight of Cups is Terrence Malick’s graceful, sensory fortune telling of a screen writer in L.A searching for meaning in his existence through a series of beautiful women.
The narrative form (threadbare as it is) follows the steps of a tarot, spelling out our Knight’s fate. Inter-titles signify stages of this abstract folktale; The Moon, The Hanged Man, The Judge, The Tower, The Priestess, Death, Freedom, etc. Knight of Cups renders the individual characters inconsequential; they’re merely markers of time. Malick’s manipulation of temporality with Bale’s consistent look and age means that it’s impossible to stitch the sequence of events into a chronological order. It’s especially apparent in sections of Knight of Cups that are dedicated to musings on family, and the wish fulfilment implicit in fatherhood. Brian Dennehy begins as the disembodied guiding voice to Bale’s crusade. When we’re introduced to this broken failure of a man his lack of control and his seeming surrender to his flaws he becomes the flint to explosive wounds in his other son played by Wes Bently. Throughout the film, Bently’s appearance interchanges so that you realise time zigzags; and yet those normally disorientating changes only emphasise that time is inconsequential.
Bale’s Knight is constantly in pursuit; he’s a fleeting avatar of a man observing and enquiring about the people who change his shadow-like trajectory. There’s a natural inquisition in Bale’s character when he’s attempting to charm; he is no-one. This Knight of Cups is an armour shell, hollow and ripe to echo and reverberate the energy of those around him. The women around Bale’s character all appear to want something different from him. Fleeting sex (Imogen Poots), long term companionship (Cate Blanchett), relief from a marriage on the rocks (Natalie Portman), rom-com love (Freida Pinto) or even spiritual connection (Teresa Palmer). In each of the sequences that he’s alongside them, he’s dwarfed, and they consume the focus of the audience. You feel the reckless abandon in Poots, you feel the frenzy of pleasure with Portman until there’s unplanned consequences, and you stew in the cold melancholy of Blanchett’s loner. Bale’s momentary beauties are merely appetite suppressants; he’s desperate for love to be the map to his loss of identity. They’re not the destination; they’re the landmarks.
Knight of Cups most admirable and reprehensible quality is that it revels in the beauty and opulence of the Hollywood. Malick makes the settings for Bale’s meandering; the palatial mansions, carved in the image of European monarchy, or the sheer glass corporate strongholds; sublime. L.A. is a dream highway; an oasis of wish fulfilment. Malick approaches Bale’s lead character as someone embedded into the reality of the business and begins to unpack the inherent directionless of a town built on pretending. While you stream past Antonio Banderas espousing the flavours of women, or Jason Clarke demonstrating some ‘grade A schmooze,’ the embodiment of that falsehood is played by Michael Wincott who steps into proceedings to provide rasping narration and a Faustian bargain to Bale’s writer. Anything he wants, Wincott’s agent can acquire. Malick all but replaces dialogue in the film with narration, the characters that are interacting with Bale’s lead character often speak inside his head (and the audiences) with narration as the hum of the dialogue of their interaction uninterrupted. It’s quite astounding that despite how little explicit narrative detail is contained in Knight of Cups and yet how much the performers convey the details of life loved and lost.
There’s a sequence toward the end of the film where Bale and his purposefully dirty style is contrasted against the arid desert shale on the outskirts of Los Angeles. As the spines of the brush ripple in the breeze, Malick gets close to Bale’s face. He has the looks of an abandoned toddler at a supermarket. It’s in this moment that Knight of Cups’ philosophical allure is lost and something triggers your ‘pretentious gag reflex’. Suddenly you may find yourself ablaze with rage that Malick (infamous recluse) has been ploughing through every season of Californication until he had to have a crack at his own version. The engine of cynicism starts firing up and you strip away philosophical meaning until you’re writing Knight of Cups off as a great screensaver for your most recent Discover Weekly Playlist on Spotify.
Wrestling with Knight of Cups, the words of philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s seminal work “Simulacra and Simulation” (a theorising of the significance of symbols to society in our time of infinite replication) echoed through my mind. To bastardise his magnificence, he discusses the order of signs. The first stage is a faithful copy; in that either Malick is portraying Hollywood exactly as it is or perhaps that Knight of Cups copies Californication in its own impressionist way. The second stage is an unfaithful representation of reality; Malick obscuring what Hollywood is like, “masking the maleficence.” And the third order “masks the absence of a profound reality.” This is the cynical view of the work; beauty (natural and physical), form, framing and style disguising an utter lack of profundity.
Malick’s fortune telling is bold; Knight of Cups is all of these things.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman
Directed by: Terrence Malick
Written by: Terrence Malick
Starring: Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett, Brian Dennehy, Antonio Banderas, Frieda Pinto, Wes Bentley, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots, Michael Wincott, Jason Clarke, Joel Kinnaman,