The lead actor in Knight of Cups is Christian Bale, who plays… someone in Hollywood named Rick. I honestly couldn’t tell if he was supposed to be an actor or writer or what. The film is divided into eight chapters (Wes Anderson style), each of which is named after a tarot card (as is the film itself) save for the final chapter and charts Rick’s relationship with a different person in his life. For example, the fourth chapter (Judgement) examines his strained relationship with his wife (played by Cate Blanchett) while the eighth chapter (Death) illustrates an affair he conducted (with a woman played by Natalie Portman).
And… that’s about it. The single, glaring problem with this film is the almost complete lack of either plot or characterization. Over the course of two hours, we learn virtually nothing about Rick or any of the people he interacts with, save for the barest of details- his ex-wife is a doctor, is brother seems to be mentally unstable, etc. Sometimes we don’t even learn the characters’ names. I mean, I know Malick’s films are typically light on plot and characterization, but they’re stretched to the point of non-existence in this film.
Of course, this film does possess Malick’s trademark airy and borderline spiritual style. There’s a lot of talk in the film of the meaning of human existence- par for the course for a Malick film. But while his prior films have very definite themes, the near complete lack of plot and proper character development means that whatever message he is trying to convey is lost. He seems to be commenting upon the shallowness that characterizes modern life in general and Hollywood in particular, but because of the lack of plot and character development all we see is a collection of equally shallow and meaningless characters who we can’t connect with. The Thin Red Line examines the psychological effects of war upon soldiers, and The Tree of Life plumbs the meaning of life and the experience of losing faith, but all we see in Knight of Cups is an incredibly attractive and seemingly successful man who can’t find happiness or love or establish any meaningful relationships despite sleeping with numerous exceedingly attractive women.
Maybe I just didn’t get it. Like his previous works, Knight of Cups has generated very mixed reception. Hell, maybe the shallowness of the movie was the whole point. And this is not to say that the film is a complete loss- like every Malick film, it contains absolutely gorgeous cinematography. But in the end, Knight of Cups just felt like a meaningless stream of random images and shallow characters who I learned nothing about and couldn’t identify with. It is certainly a disappointment. Let’s just hope that his next film, Weightless, is better.