In tarot, the Knight of Cups is a wayward prince who drinks from a chalice and forgets who he is while on a mission from his father. In Terrence Malick's new film, he's a disenchanted screenwriter (Christian Bale) hazily navigating the overlapping vagaries of Hollywood, his lovers, and his family.
Knight of Cups is divided into eight chapters, seven of them likewise named after symbols from the tarot deck. These mystical cards act as vital clues to what lies behind the sparse, fabulistic plot. "You see the palm trees?" Rick asks via voiceover, Malick's preferred method of verbal expression. "They tell you anything's possible."
But whether in fairy tales or reality, there's a world of difference between what's possible and what actually comes to pass. Rick cruises along the coastline in a convertible flanked by gorgeous women, drifts from production meetings to parties, and is more shaken by an early-morning earthquake than his luxe bachelor pad. Poor him, it's easy to think while playing the world's smallest violin between your fingers.
But Malick never does. Knight of Cups begins with narration from The Pilgrim's Progress, a 17th-century Christian allegory; this, along with the tarot connection, suggests that we're meant to think of Rick not as a typical showbiz philanderer but rather as a restless searcher who probably wouldn't have better luck finding whatever it is he's looking for if he knew what it was.
Malick is a rare bird, and Knight of Cups is strange even by his standards. After returning from a quote-unquote hiatus that spanned a full 20 years, the media-shy filmmaker made movies touching on everything from World War II (The Thin Red Line) and America's creation myth (The New World) to the birth of the universe itself (The Tree of Life).
In hindsight, anyone hoping he would continue expanding his narrative scope (or even maintain its vastness) was bound for disappointment. Malick's fictional universe has contracted markedly since then, his characters now closer to the insect end of the spectrum than angels — not that it stops him from finding grace notes in all of them.
These two new examples of minor-chord Malick — first To the Wonder and now Knight of Cups — are the icebergs of the writer-director's filmography. What we actually see is only their outermost layer; everything else rests stubbornly beneath the surface, daring us to dive down. Both films are under two hours long (a first since 1978's Days of Heaven), and a plot summary of either would last only a few vague sentences. Malick has always zeroed in on his characters' inner worlds, but now more than ever that fixation comes at the expense of their external realities.
That's made it easy for some to dismiss Knight of Cups as something like an art-house episode of Entourage, which seems an odd criticism. From his very first film, the criminals-on-the-lam romance Badlands, Malick has displayed an affinity for figures in extreme circumstances who find themselves emotionally adrift. Where better to find such a lost soul than Hollywood, especially given how at odds with the studio system Malick's freeform style is?
Each of the tarot-invoking chapters — the Moon, the Hanged Man, and the High Priestess are a few — refers to someone in Rick's life, most of them romantic in nature. He has relationships of varying degrees of seriousness with several women (Freida Pinto, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman play three of them), though most aren't given much more to do than strike a pose and a mood.
If these women are defined only by their relationship to Rick, so too is he somewhat of a cipher, primarily fleshed out via his dealings with the people around him. (Hollywood is all about networking, after all.) We don't know what kind of movies he writes, what sparked his deep-seated existential crisis, or whether he was ever truly happy in this life.
Malick once told John C. Reilly, who'd just shot a lengthy, emotional monologue for The Thin Red Line, that "I'm always slightly disappointed when you all open your mouths to speak. I almost wish the picture could play like a silent picture." Malick doesn't quite believe actors should be treated like cattle, as Hitchcock famously did, but he does seem most interested in their ability to convey emotions and ideas with as little dialogue as possible. (Reilly's monologue ended up getting cut from the final film, by the way.)
This is all to say that, though these aren't conventionally strong characters, they aren't really meant to be. Rather, they're attractive vessels for whatever's on the director's mind — often some mixture of romantic longing, Heideggerian philosophy and, especially as of late, Christian theology. Their own narratives are in service of a larger whole that probably only makes complete sense to Malick.
Luckily for us, the images in Knight of Cups are a marvel to behold and the characters' voiceover ruminations, inchoate though they may sometimes be, are lyrical in a way that few besides Malick even attempt to pull off. Malick releases his movies into the world like a falconer: Once let loose, they have minds of their own. They're elegant and well-trained as they take flight, though, and always circle back in a meaningful way.
Lest you think the film is a stifling, self-serious bore, let it be known that Knight of Cups also features a Fabio cameo and some righteous underwater shots of dogs fetching balls from a swimming pool. Movies about superficial people are rarely this deep. This comes through even in the frequent idle chatter between suits in the background, much of it slyly mocking but not unsympathetic. In showing Hollywood to be a sad fairytale, Malick likens this hollow, intoxicating lifestyle to an elixir that Rick drinks despite knowing it'll only deepen his slumber — no matter how desperately he may want to wake up.
Knight of Cups
Directed by Terrence Malick
Opens Friday, Edina Cinema