As Academy Award-nominated producer Sarah Green (Tree of Life) introduced SBIFF’s centerpiece film, Knight of Cups, she quoted Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, a book that inspired both her and the film’s director, Terrence Malick, “To be aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
The elliptical Knight of Cups explores the ennui of a man who is, for the most part, not onto something. Christian Bale plays Rick, a successful Hollywood writer wandering aimlessly through life. And I do mean wandering — Rick meanders through desert landscapes, star-studded L.A. parties, and dreamy film back lots, his attention snagging on a number of gorgeous women.
It must be said, this film is undoubtedly beautiful to behold. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has outdone himself. Underwater shots of lissome girls swimming in various states of undress abound, as do views of Venice Beach and downtown L.A.; however, as, is to be expected from a Terrence Malick film, the narrative tethered to these beautiful pictures isn’t terribly accessible. Herein lies the film’s flaw: while Malik successfully captures interesting, intimate moments between Rick and the women he loves, the film is too vague on the specifics of who Rick is and why we should care about him to lend the story much of an emotional impact.
Certain impressionistic moments — Rick tangled up in hotel rooms with the mysterious, slightly punk Della (Imogen Poots), reconnecting with his serene ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), frolicking on the beach with a married woman (Natalie Portman), or watching his father argue with his kinetic younger brother (Wes Bentley) — hit home. However, the film relies heavily on voiceovers, and the lack of traditional dialogue makes it difficult to discern what exactly is happening — or even what each character’s name is. The circular nature of the film makes it difficult to connect with Rick’s journey.
So, while Malick does an excellent job making these poetic scenes feel authentic and look gorgeous, it’s difficult to empathize in a character’s search for meaning when viewers have to spend so much time discerning the meaning of the film itself.