As a Hollywood pilgrim searches for the meaning of life, Terrence Malick’s Knight Of Cups evokes stunning images that remain ultimately meaningless.
House Of Cardsby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
In Terrence Malik’s Knight of Cups a Los Angeles screenwriter wanders through the decadent excesses of parties in Hollywood and Las Vegas in a search for meaning in his life. The result is an impressionistic collage of striking visual images linked by the occasional brief voiceover comment from the writer Rick (Christian Bale) and a few mumbled lines of dialogue. It ultimately induces a kind of dreamlike state. Malik’s – and thus his alter ego Rick’s – spiritual quest is signposted by Ben Kingsley’s opening reading from the Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress and the fable of the prince from the east who went in search of a precious pearl but drank a fateful potion from a cup that made him forget his quest.
Rick is alienated from his surroundings, himself and everyone around him. He cannot feel, though he wants to feel something. The pieces of his life have not come together and the fragmented structure of the film echoes this. He is constantly moving, either walking along deserted shores or driving along endless freeways. Human beings are dwarfed by the gigantic architecture of the buildings, the skyscraper workplaces, the deserted film lots, the luxurious villas, the themed hotels of Las Vegas. City and nature are shot so that they become abstract shapes and patterns which merge in and out of each other. Cityscapes and roads at night become a fairyland of coloured lights and shapes. The colour palette ranges from muted shabby chic greys and blues of the ocean and the desert to gaudy neons in artificial settings. And what is more artificial than the film world that Rick drifts through?
Knight of Cups is a reference to a Tarot card that, depending which way up it is, can mean either opportunity or false promises, and that, of course, represents the alternatives in Rick’s life. The film is divided into sections each named after a Tarot card and each shows Rick’s failed relationship with a different beautiful woman – Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Imogen Poots and his ex-wife Cate Blanchett, a doctor tending to homeless people, and who is the most substantial character. Hanging over Rick is the unresolved family tragedy of the death of his brother, still causing conflict with his father (Brian Dennehy) and surviving brother (Wes Bentley), but all that is strangely emotionally distant and we have to infer the story and back story. We see the actions, the violence but only hear snatches of the words.
In Knight of Cups Rick is the central character who is there but not there. Life is happening around him – from an Elvis impersonator to a Buddhist monk – but he is not part of it. Malik’s previous films To The Wonder and The Tree of Life divided opinion. Knight Of Cups too, like the Tarot card whose meaning depends on which way up it is, could either be a revelation of the search for spirituality that Malick hopes to find inside everyone or its opposite – emptiness.
Knight Of Cups is released on 6th May 2016 in the UK