A Quiet Playboy, 6 Flings, and 8 Tarot Cards: A Look at Knight of Cups

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It's been a long time since my last post, but I figured I'd share my thoughts about a film that touches me in a certain way while remaining curiously evasive. It's not the greatest film of the year, and is unlikely to be perceived that way by most, but it's a film that's left a positive imprint on me in a number of ways, enough for me to give it two viewings—the first while relatively sober, the second while in a slight escapist drunken haze after seeing the depressing results of the Illinois primaries in an Evanston bar. So, you might be able to understand why I'd want to re-watch the story of a hedonistic loner on that particular night.

It's a film that encourages (if not begs) you to come at it from multiple angles to grasp its abstract nature, but I feel that truly understanding this movie is an undertaking meant almost solely for Terrence Malick to indulge in, the film's director and writer. It's somewhat of a tougher film to crack, but it never ceases to entrance, and something about it continues to draw me toward it.

Knight of Cups is Terrence Malick's 8th film, and my true introduction to his work. I had only watched fragments of Tree of Life, his 2011 effort, which had a similar feel to it in its dreamlike and almost voyeuristic peering into the life of a dysfunctional family, with Brad Pitt as the short-tempered traditionalist patriarch. Knight follows Christian Bale as screenwriter Rick, who spends most of the film experiencing loose love affairs with six different women in nonlinear format, traveling seamlessly between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The other times are spent mingling at Hollywood parties that display the epitome of shallowness (in which Antonio Banderas is the king), experiencing a seemingly simple earthquake while remaining oddly contemplative about it, visiting a psychic who pulls the titular Knight of Cups tarot card, meeting up with Rick's brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and watching him get into fights with their narcissistic father (Brian Dennehy) who denies he's ever done anything wrong, and wandering around California's sprawling ethereal desert to find a sense of self and understanding through all of the chaos and hedonism.

The film is divided into eight chapters based on tarot cards to complement the title's theme: The Knight of Cups, The Moon, The Hanged Man, The Hermit, Judgment, The Tower, The High Priestess, and Death. The "story" begins with Rick in the desert, at one point cut with a mystifying shot of the Aurora Borealis overhead, hinting at a "big picture" that Rick's story points to, while a wistful heavy voice relays the story of a young prince (and knight) whose father, a king in the East, sent him on a mission to find a pearl in Egypt. However, when he arrived in Egypt, the people poured him a drink that made him forget both his identity as a prince and the objective of the pearl, and caused him to sleep. Thus, we can conclude, he becomes the Knight of Cups: a tarot card that represents a dreamer whose constant boredom leads him to endlessly seek stimulation and sensation.

The story of the prince of course reflects Rick's life, as a screenwriter "sent" to L.A. by his father from his Midwestern origins, who eventually slips into the entrapments of the Hollywood lifestyle and loses any sense of who he really is. In one moment of confusion, Christian Bale ponders in sleepy voiceover narration while sitting in front of a TV in the dark, "Fragments... pieces of a man—where did I go wrong?" It's a question to which we don't receive much semblance of an answer, apart from glimpses of parties where he's wasted, or the triangular arguments between Rick, his minister brother, and their aggressive father, which culminate in violent outbursts half the time.

Rick in a moment of tension with his emotionally numb father.
Rick in a moment of tension with his emotionally numb father.

To spare us trite dialogue we've likely heard before in many of these situations, and make dialogue more like how we might attempt to remember it, the film interestingly chooses to give us fragments of conversation for loose context, like listening through a neighbor's walls to learn about their disputes. We never really understand what sets Rick's brother off in his father-son standoffs, for instance, but we can safely assume it's an insensitive comment about the recent death of Rick and Berry's third brother as a victim of suicide. We certainly see the raw emotions at the core of the encounters. At one point Barry sardonically imitates their father's perceived crocodile tears for his son's death, never relenting in his contempt for the man. The kind of upbringing Rick and Barry had is never explored, but one of abuse and neglect is obvious. In one shot, their father is seen surreally washing his hands in a sink full of blood (which may or may not be hallucinatory) in front of Rick, likely representing the "blood on his hands" in relation to his son's suicide and destroyed relationships. Another metaphorical shot shows the father walking across a stage to a clapping audience as he proclaims he did everything right, highlighting that aforementioned narcissism and denial.

In an apparent attempt to cope with the family drama and provide a lighter contrast to aggression, Rick drifts nonlinearly from tryst to tryst with six women, played by Imogen Poots, Freida Pinto, Isabel Lucas, Teresa Palmer, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman. While the first four actresses play women who as far as we know are simple love affairs, Blanchett plays his conflicted wife who's reluctant to leave him despite their disagreements, and Portman plays another married woman who's seeing Rick on the side. None of these women seem particularly able to crack Rick's code, much like audiences with the film, as Bale's portrayal is largely silent and somewhat disconnected during these segments. Sometimes he's seen with women whose identities we never learn, such as two half-naked model types who playfully chase after him throughout his condo, presumably after a night of three-way ecstasy. It would appear that each of these women sees a different "fragment" of the man that Rick is, but he's still a puzzle that's been broken for a long time.

Rick's love apparently comes easy to him, seducing each of these women with nothing more than a fascinated, relaxed gaze, the occasional grin, and a soft touch. I think we all wish it was that easy.

Sometimes these love (or lust) interests describe Rick and seem to tell him what he wants. Imogen Poots tells him in delicate British, "You don't want love; you want a love experience," while a lovestruck Portman plainly tells him, "You have love in you. I know it." Poots also tells him in what feels like interpretive performance art as she moves and enunciates with each cryptic word, "I think... you are weak." Teresa Palmer teases Rick in a strip club, giving him a show while informing him, "You can be anything. You can be an asshole, you can be a saint, or you can be a gentleman." Freida Pinto plays a model who expresses puzzlement as to what Rick wants from her, assuming that he thinks she can break him out of his shell and bring excitement. Blanchett questions why she and Rick never had children as footage of her playing with their dog suggests that this pet is the only child that their relationship can permit.

The single side of Rick sees him enjoying the Hollywood party life at lavish mansions and walking through a Warner Brothers lot with easy-going executives, receiving an envelope full of cash for a script he hasn't even written yet. In fact, the only time we see any hard evidence of Rick's actual work is when papers of a screenplay are strewn across his desk as robbers hold him at gunpoint in his flashy condo, during which they berate him for having a lack of possessions to steal. Rick comes across as an introverted man who floats through life as if it's a dream, waiting for the next experience to find him and whisk him away, a drifter who's lost his way and appears no closer to finding his core.

To highlight the apparent randomness of this world, interesting cameos show up at one particular party hosted by Antonio Banderas, with Ryan O'Neal standing in a circle with Rick, and Thomas Lennon of Reno 911 and Night at the Museum fame (Lennon's story about the making of this film is one of the funniest things I've ever read) as one of his "friends." Here we get a good look at Hollywood superficiality, as womanizer Banderas talks to Rick about his likening of women to ice cream flavors, stating that sometimes he really wants "strawberry." Sometimes party guests utter a line that's so aligned to Hollywood thinking that it's bordering on hilarious, such as: "If Cleopatra's nose was that much shorter, it would've changed the world." It's a world of shallowness that Rick loses himself in, suspended in time as the representation of The Hanged Man tarot card and its respective chapter.

The film begins to lose my hold towards the end, but the film ends when it's taken you far enough down Rick's path. Its nonlinear structure turns it into something of a mosaic film, structured much like how the human mind accesses memories, and its over-the-shoulder perspective combined with an existentially explorative air brings the adventure of Enter the Void to mind. Bale offers nuances of everything from silenced grief and the desire to love to a tentative disdain for his father in his subtle performance. It isn't his strongest, but as a man who's lost in the midst of a world devoted to sensory experience and numbing of the mind, he invests in it enough to pull you into the story with him. The other performances are of course good, particularly Wes Bentley as the perpetually frustrated and angry brother who's trying to make things right. The six main actresses play characters who are meant to be somewhat distant from Rick, never quite digging into Rick's head. I can see how their loosely written characters might be perceived as borderline sexist, but I do believe it's simply a reflection of Rick's eagerness to connect, but ultimate inability to fully devote himself to any of them. Because of this, their performances aren't the highlight, but they do turn in fine ones with what they're given.

I can't say I'd recommend this to a lot of people, much like many of my personal favorites, as a couple walked out of my first viewing after seemingly probably thinking either "I don't know what the hell is going on," or maybe "I think this is just a pretentious film about rich white guy problems." And yes, it is about rich white guy problems, but if anything it says that money can't buy happiness, which does have something to say. I find this film to be an enjoyable if dense piece of work. The reviews are polarizing, but there are many great pieces from critics about why this film is a competent challenge to Hollywood. The beautiful cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is unmatchable, and the score by Hanan Townshend perfectly helps put you in a trance with the visuals. It's postmodern art with a purpose, which is something I've always loved.

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