We float along Los Angeles’ dreamy world of glitz and venom, stuck in the shoulder-length point of view of a brooding Hollywood writer named Rick (Christian Bale). He whispers cryptic musings on how lost he is in a whirlpool of destroyed relationships and regret. Terrence Malick’s latest film, Knight of Cups, is a nightmarish look at a successful man in spiritual crisis. Bale is joined by several A-list actors. Cate Blanchett — she is remarkable as Rick’s ex-wife — and Natalie Portman (her chapter is titled ‘Death’) are just two of the broken, weary eyed women that pop up during the wanderer’s quest for meaning.
Each chapter brings in a new character for Rick to share a fragmented, mostly inaudible conversation with as they roam LA’s dusky beaches and colorful rooftop parties. Early scenes promise a standard narrative as Rick’s father and brother become locked in emotional battle, the camera hovers around and their voices quickly evaporate. It plays on like this for two hours; we never learn more about the characters. They appear and fade out without any growth. Malick packed The Tree of Life with these meandering sequences, but they’re bookmarked with incredible scenes of cosmic creation and actual storytelling. Even The Thin Red Line showed hints of the future, challenging Malickian adventures. But with Knight of Cups it becomes annoying. It’s like someone threw a grenade at the script and used the leftovers.
Knight of Cups is a beautiful, disjointed mess. It doesn’t adhere to any rules; remaining unforgivingly experimental as it lathers the sexualized, decadent visuals with elegant lines of poetry. The result is a picture that is both profound and hollow, snapping back with moments of magnificent aesthetic that can’t be replicated anywhere else. Malick is indeed a master, following the ugliness of these characters with GoPro-styled shots that orbit around his own illusionary Los Angeles.
Playing out like Checkpoints in a shadowy world; an artist at his most personal, Malick doesn’t want to let us in, and that can feel quite alienating. The charm soon fades, and hope that any of this will ever make sense vanishes into a picture reel of fleeting ideas.
Then you experience moments of supreme craftsmanship, a mystic auteur operating with total creative control. An unadulterated vision that promises to offer an experience not easily forgotten. A piece of work that can be argued about, revisited and used to inspire.