Considering the long breaks between films that writer/director Terrence Malick is known for, he’s been in an unusually productive mode in the last few years. And if anything’s been made clear by his string of films this decade, including 2011’s The Tree of Life and 2013’s To the Wonder, it’s this: “abstract” barely begins to convey his work. With Knight of Cups, though, Malick is hitting the point of self-parody with a film that’s so vague and shapeless, all but the most devoted Malick aficionados will have trouble following whatever he’s trying to say – let alone staying awake.
Rick (Christian Bale) is a financially successful screenwriter, but following the death of one brother, he’s looking for more in his life. He reflects on the strained relationships he has with his other brother (Wes Bentley), father (Brian Dennehy), and six different women from his life (Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Frieda Pinto, Imogen Poots, Teresa Palmer, Isabel Lucas).
The film, for the record, pulls its name from the Knight of Cups tarot card, where the card has one of two meanings – when upright, it represents an artistic dreamer who’s frequently restless; when reversed, it represents a reckless spirit who can’t distinguish between fact and fiction.
Knight of Cups is broken up into chapters, each one revolving around one of the relationships in Rick’s life (and named after different tarot cards). And Malick makes sure to take his time with each chapter. The way the film is shot, characters appear on screen, and audiences hear their voices – but the voices are all delivered through narration, not by actually seeing the characters on screen delivering their lines. Broken down into a single scene, this could be effective in conveying whatever Malick’s trying to say. But this isn’t something done for a handful of scenes. This is more or less the entirety of the film. It demands the unwavering attention of the audience, but is done in such an elongated, esoteric way that it’s more likely to induce a coma.
So take my recommendation for the film as such: if you’re a fan of Malick’s work, you might get something out of this. If you’re not a fan, avoid Knight of Cups at all costs. And if you’re not sure of your feelings on the director, start somewhere else in his filmography and build up to this film. Otherwise, you’ll most likely be joining the ranks of the non-fans.