There was an alternate cover to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo that was shared on social media, but never used. On it, the wedding photo of the smiling African-American family used in the official cover is juxtaposed with a photo of a mostly nude white girl with a huge ass, accompanied by the caption “WHICH / ONE” repeated in large text in proximity to the two photos. This binary moral quandary — traditional family values vs. booty — is the extent of the thematic depth of “Knight of Cups,” an overlong, pseudo-ponderous essay written and directed by Terrence Malick.
Here we have a two-hour film one can understand immediately and entirely by watching its two-minute trailer. Christian Bale (“The Dark Knight”) plays Rick, a successful but depressed Hollywood screenwriter who combats his internal struggle to find existential purpose by living a life of sex with rich, beautiful women.
An ensemble cast of Hollywood’s most gorgeous, talented actresses (Cate Blanchett, “The Tree of Life,” Natalie Portman, “Black Swan,” et al.) accompanies Bale as his six lovers — less characters, more representatives of different aesthetics of heterosexual male desire. The film’s emotional narrative calls for these women to be superficial presences in Rick’s life — a commentary on Hollywood sexual culture, to be sure. But none are given enough screen time to feel even realistically unlikable.
While the film itself is aware of its treatment of these women as sexual objects for Rick to feed upon, I’m not so sure the film is aware of its deeper, more sinister objectification of women as means to an end. Women are portrayed as experience points on a chivalrous male’s journey to enlightenment in a role-playing game, emotional chalices for the “Knight of Cups” to sip and discard.
It is immediately evident that this central narrative is meant to reflect the life of its writer/director. And while I have no doubt other ultra-wealthy, aging straight white men will have little trouble connecting with our wandering spider monkey of a protagonist, the narrative of “Knight of Cups” is inherently disadvantaged as an effective drama because a vast majority of the population won’t be able to relate to it. Many narratives in popular film concern the upper class, but this one in particular has an elitist exclusivity inherent to its central struggle.
Rick’s struggle is visualized with dumbfounding simplicity. There are several sequences where Rick just stands longingly over beautiful natural vistas, silent, pondering something. These laughable moments call to mind a high school film student considering which shooting locations in his hometown are the “deepest.” His interactions with women are juxtaposed with interactions with his family (Wes Bentley, “American Beauty,” Brian Dennehy, “Romeo + Juliet”), whom we learn little about besides that they’re angry and petty.
The film also utilizes a recurring theme of “ugly Americans” seeping into the lifestyle of the wealthy. The use of images of unattractive and deformed people portraying the L.A. unfortunate (homeless people, robbers, etc.) is troublingly incoherent at best and disgustingly classist at worst. A certain shot of a crouching Christian Bale pondering next to a sleeping homeless woman like a paleontologist poring over a dig site was so insulting to my intelligence I considered leaving the theater. Is this supposed to be interesting? Is this supposed to be saying something meaningful about class? Or is this just Malick being hateful towards Black homeless people? The film is so compositionally muddled I could not tell you which is the case.
There are two things that save “Knight of Cups” from being a complete waste of time. Antonio Banderas (“Desperado”) is admittedly entertaining in his very brief appearance as Tonio, a suave Hollywood playboy — the only character in the film I would want to spend any time with. And Emmanuel Lubezki, coming off of an Oscars hat trick in the cinematography category, mercifully delivers images composed so engagingly that when the film’s structure, themes, acting and editing fail to execute on ideas remotely worth giving thought to, at least the pictures are fun to look at.