Christian Bale teams back up with The New World director Terrence Malick for Knight of Cups, a meditative and meandering work that ultimately squanders the abundance of talent behind and in front of the camera. Malick has never been one to put forth a concise premise or to craft crisp, linear storytelling but the structure here is detrimentally loose and unnecessarily arduous, especially given the enticing subject material. I’m all for a well-told existential crisis movie but when context and setup are intentionally kept to a bare minimum, it goes a long way to stymie any sort of initial enthusiasm.
We follow forlorn Hollywood executive Rick (Bale) through various stages in his adult life, the majority of which involve his most crucial female relationships and almost all of which take place throughout the Los Angeles area. Like the film’s title, each of its eight chapters takes its name from a tarot card that ostensibly describes a corresponding character or concept in Rick’s life. The most notable of the tableaux include The Hermit, in which playboy Tonio (Antonio Banderas) serves as Rick’s spiritual guide through a swanky celebrity gathering, and Judgement, which documents the fallout of his failed marriage from ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett).
These stories are intermittently interesting on their own but there’s very little connective tissue between them that allows for momentum to build up to something meaningful. They could practically be told out of order and I don’t imagine it would have a great effect on the final product, which doesn’t bode well for any sort of poignancy that’s supposed to come from the narrative. The agile camerawork of the masterful Emmanuel Lubezki is always seeking out transfixing shots of beauty and wonder and it’s no coincidence that his unique sense of vision is often the most engrossing aspect of the film.
Anything to distract from the odiously overwrought sentiments recited by the multitude of talented actors in the style of hushed voiceover for which Malick has come to overuse in his more recent work. With its moody settings and pretentious tagline narration, the overall effect is not unlike watching 120 one-minute fragrance ads in a row with all of the closing pitches removed. The problem is that this movie doesn’t even know what it’s selling in the first place. If I’m supposed to feel bad for Rick as he bounces around the most affluent parts of LA and mopes about his luxurious circumstances, I’m not buying.
Bale’s largely vapid and charmless performance doesn’t explain why his character would garner the attention of these gorgeous women who can’t wait to throw themselves at him but more importantly, it also doesn’t root the narrative with much emotional honesty. His apathy bleeds into the disposition of the surrounding characters to the degree that everyone is just a little too cool and removed to be remotely relatable. Malick is an undeniably great filmmaker and he’ll find his way again, so I choose to consider Knight of Cups a spiritual hiccup rather than a career-halting dead end.