How do we reconcile the inevitability of death? How do we reconcile the inevitability of desire? These are questions Christian Bale’s character Rick ponders and confronts in director Terrence Malick’s seventh feature film Knight of Cups.
Rick, a brooding screenwriter in LA, wends through his life with virtually no dialogue, entranced by both the beautiful women he encounters and his volatile, self-destructive brother Barry (Wes Bentley), a character full of a sound and fury that signifies something. The film is also structured by the categories and subtitles of a tarot deck (“The High Priestess” and “The Empress,” among others). Musing on the impermanence of love, death, passion, and sex, Malick moves between each as ceaselessly and relentlessly as the recurring scenes of waves upon a beach.
Bale is often noted for his amorphous physicality as an actor. Much has been written about his skeletal frame in The Machinist (2004), his hulked up physique in Batman Begins (2005), and even his svelte and sinister Bateman in American Psycho (2000). Yet, in Knight of Cups, Malick lingers on Bale’s face, content to let his visage convey all. It is there that Bale will insinuate the enflamed with a blush or remain stoically steely in the triangulated confrontations between himself, his brother, and his father.
Bale recounted in a recent interview that Malick actually discouraged him from dialogue, saying, “We don’t need to talk that much.” When we do hear Bale’s voice in the film, no longer is it the gravelly roar of Batman. Rather, we lean in—wanting to hear what he discloses.
Malick doesn’t provide much background information or plot structure in Knight of Cups, but, instead, favors the episodic. Throughout the various sequences involving women Rick has loved or loves, we come to discover snippets about Rick as a multifaceted character—a husband and a philanderer, a romantic and a player. He will crawl in a cage at a strip bar after a few drinks but he will also wander alone in the desert, aimless and contemplative.
Rick’s character of contradictions mimics that of the Knight of Cups in a tarot deck. Depending on whether the card is upright or reversed, the Knight of Cups can represent new beginnings or connect to romantic love; conversely, he can also be untrustworthy, jealous, or reckless.
The women in Rick’s life come and go, including Imogen Poots as she teeters in dangerous heels and flaunts her dramatic eye shadow à la ‘80s punk rock; Freida Pinto wafts across the screen like a fragrance we can’t forget; Cate Blanchett nervously adjusts her sweater ad naseum as though shielding herself from Rick, her hair a corona of sunlight; and when we reach the segment with Natalie Portman (labeled “Death”), one recalls W. S. Merwin’s poem “Separation”: “Your absence has gone through me / Like a thread through a needle. / Everything I do is stitched with its color.” Portman’s presence is as abbreviated and unforgettably lyrical as Merwin’s poem.
Does Portman’s Elizabeth negate all of Rick’s failed attempts at meaningful connections with women? Is it she that he constantly seeks at the sea’s shore? The camera tracks her running down the beach in a soaked dress with insatiable hunger, as does he. His voiceover states, “Have I found you? Can it be? Answer me.” While audiences were titillated by Portman playing a stripper in Mike Nichols’ Closer (2004), the scene where she grasps for Bale’s hand from behind a light installation or stands on his knee to stick her toe in his mouth is far more erotically charged, albeit it tinged with transience. We want to soak in her presence (and in Bale and Portman’s chemistry).
Malick utilizes the golden hour repeatedly in his films, and in Knight of Cups there is impermanence not just in the fading light of day, but also in relationships, the effects of going down “the K-hole,” the tremors of an earthquake, or the flirtation with the woman at the party whose nails are painted the perfect shade of pink.
The voiceovers of the actors are what drive the interior exploration of the characters, adding to the elusive and seductive nature of who these people are, what they’ve left behind, where they might be going. Malick is no stranger to inconclusive themes or subjects. In Days of Heaven,(1978) he explored the lives of seasonal workers who harvest crops and are constantly on the move. In Badlands (1974), he followed the romance of two youngsters, trigger happy and directionless in South Dakota.
While those seeking a more linear narrative and traditional plot structure will undoubtedly not gravitate to this film, it is infused with all the motifs we have come to revere (or revile) in Malick’s work. The restless camera constantly tracks through spaces (rooms, streets, water), and it is this movement in-between locations, people, or moments that results in the two-hour feature.
Malick is unconcerned in this film with what some might consider the chief events in life such as births or marriages, but for this film (unlike the epic Tree of Life) we don’t need those major narrative arcs; instead, we’re grateful that his proclivities mirror that of writer Gretel Ehrlich who notes in the preface of her memoir The Solace of Open Spaces, “The detour, of course, became the actual the path; the digression in my writing, the narrative.” The digressions in Knight of Cups, the moments in-between, enhance its ephemeral beauty – like a sunset you keep looking for, long after it has set.