Is there a filmmaker more focused on creating eccentric personal tone poems than Terrence Malick? Since his 1970s masterworks “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” his focus has been painful paradoxes as faith attempts to adapt itself to the latest challenges of an ever-evolving culture.
“Knight of Cups,” his melancholy, minimalist, perplexing seventh film is, like his recent creations, another case of ethereal navel gazing at the expense of a wider view.
Drawing its title from a tarot card, the film gives us Christian Bale as Rick, a Hollywood hedonist who is never far from an Armani wardrobe or an orgiastic house party. He is not entertained.
Blank-faced and prone to voice-overs announcing “so much love inside us never gets out,” he is a man in a crisis of faith, mired in a sinful world. The character seems to be wandering from one path to another with scarcely a clue that he has embarked upon a search, and no real recognition of what he might be after. What moviemaking talents Rick is endowed with are hidden from us, but it’s implied that he is a comedy screenwriter, which makes his emotional suffering extra ridiculous.
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The story intermingles the sacred and the sordid, beginning with Ben Kingsley’s narration drawn from John Bunyan’s classic Christian parable “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” The entire movie is allegorical, with divine themes beneath every word, rock and individual.
Single, surrounded by gorgeous starlets and unhappy about it, Rick dips into relationships looking for love but mostly seeking spiritual relief. Rick’s memories are occupied by his ex-wife, an honorable physician (played largely nonverbally by Cate Blanchett), his abusive father (Brian Dennehy) and difficult brother (Wes Bentley), all of whom are presented in oblique lack of detail.
Some of Rick’s romantic flings are kind and platonic, like the sweet beauty played by Freida Pinto. Some are hellcats, like Imogen Poots sassily declaring “I think you are weak” and “I think I could make you crazy.”
Some are downright odd. Natalie Portman pushes her toes into Bale’s mouth for an extended bout of foot-sucking. Somewhere Quentin Tarantino weeps waterworks of jealousy.
Light on story line, “Knight of Cups” offers images closer to the visual tableaux of coffee table photography books than typical drama. It was shot by the matchless cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who recently won his third Oscar in succession. The composition, use of lighting and stunning focus on scenery are breathtaking.
What is missing is a coherent focus on ideas to make the endless religious undertones more than ambiguous. Why does the film take aimless road trips to Las Vegas and St. Louis? Perhaps to show that ambitious architecture is far less impressive than the beauty of the natural world? Your guess is as good as anyone’s. Watching the film is like listening to one of the looping, repetitive orchestral scores composed by Philip Glass.
When one character says to Rick, “Tell me something interesting,” you wish he was talking to Malick.
The plot is anti-chronological, which suits Rick’s ceaseless trek along a twisty path of empty film studio backlot cityscapes, lavish corporate towers, ornate mansions and movie-land pool parties. Amid this minefield of soul-shrinking excess, alert viewers will notice minor walk-ons by Ryan O’Neal, Jason Clarke, Nick Offerman, Thomas Lennon, Fabio and many more. They add little to the proceedings but could be conducive to a Spot the B-Lister drinking game when the film appears on DVD.
Knight of Cups
Rated: R for some nudity, sexuality and language. Starring: Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman. Director: Terrence Malick. Running time: 118 minutes. Theater: Flicks.