Wandering the Los Angeles Wasteland in “Knight of Cups”
By Skip Sheffield
Terrence Malick is either a visionary creative genius or a world-class B.S. artist.
In truth he is probably a little bit of each. You can see this in “Knight of Cups;” the latest from the writer-director of such masterpieces as “The Badlands,” “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line” and such head-scratchers as “The New World,” “To The Wonder” and “The Tree of Life.”
Malick is highly intelligent. He graduated cum laude from Harvard and was a Rhodes Scholar. Maybe he thinks too much.
“Knight of Cups” is almost all an interior monologue emanating from the disillusioned, disenchanted character of Rick, played by Christian Bale.
Rick is evidently a very successful Hollywood screenwriter, though that is never spelled out. We never see him working or writing. He just mopes about, wondering what any of it means. Rick wanders from the beach at Santa Monica to the Hollywood Hills to the high desert and to Las Vegas, romancing in the process six beautiful women.
“Knight of Cups,” which takes its title from the Tarot card of the same name, wins points if you fancy beautiful women in various stages of undress. These women include Nancy (Cate Blachett) who is or was his wife; free-spirited Della (Imogene Poots); professional model Helen (Freida Pinto); Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), a now-married former love with whom he has a fling; a sexy stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), and the relatively innocent Isabel (Isabel Lucas).
Much of Rick’s musings is pretty obvious stuff taught in the Bible and Philosophy 101. Money can’t ensure happiness, nor can material possessions. Success does not equal contentment, nor does sex. The key to happiness lies within.
Two other important characters are Rick’s regretful father (Brian Dennehy) and his screwed-up brother Barry (Wes Bentley), a defrocked Methodist pastor given to violent outbursts.
“Knight of Cups” begins portentously and pretentiously with a quote from John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Perhaps it would be helpful to be familiar with the characters on Tarot cards, because they signal chapters in Rick’s wanderings. Probably not. One thing for sure, the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki (who just won his third Oscar in a row) is stunningly gorgeous, whether on Los Angeles’ skid row, the bleak high desert, or the glittering palaces of Las Vegas. Whatever it means is up to you. I got the point early on, but I learned nothing new.