You’ve heard a lot about experimental filmmaker Terrence Malick, so you decide to give his latest release, the Christian Bale headlined “Knight of Cups,” a shot. You never expected to emerge from the theater blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight as though recently released from solitary confinement, feeling ostracized (if you identify as anything other than a white male) and confused and hopelessly downtrodden.
When cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s signature landscape shot fills the opening screen, you’re already thinking ahead to the 2017 Academy Awards. Will Lubezki make history yet again by winning four Oscars in a row? At the very least, this film will be pretty, you think.
But, wait, the movie is running merrily along, leaving you in the (artsy) dust. You shift your attention back to the screen, where models slathered in black slime and painted eyeball masks undulate suggestively. You ponder the implications of Dadaism.
There is an earthquake in Christian Bale’s apartment. His living quarters are sparse, but in a classy way, like he has money to burn but can’t be bothered to spend it because of his crushing ennui. He rushes outside, barefoot, as though late for a beachfront photoshoot. Others are cowering with him on the clean-swept pavement. Potted plants lay smashed on the ground, like his dreams. It’s a metaphor. Probably.
There is an argument in a conference room with bright windows. You catch snatches of the conversation and gauge that Christian Bale’s character is a screenwriter named Rick. You’re already lost and confused but you’re an attentive, intelligent moviegoer, so you at least pick up on basic plotlines. But it turns out that the film doesn’t have much of a plot, so your meager knowledge is useless.
“Where did I go wrong?” Christian Bale’s character muses dolorously at the camera. “Knight of Cups” has only just begun, and yet you check your watch, wondering the same thing.
Your exasperation increases as the film goes on and Christian Bale attends more and more glamorous parties at mansions glittering with treasures worth the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP. Poor guy, tortured by his opulent lifestyle and white male privilege! you think. He must be suffering from affluenza. You send thoughts and prayers.
Soon, however, your feeling of generic queasiness is replaced by a blinding rage, helpfully sounded out onscreen by the oceanic roar that permeates the film alongside Hanan Townshend’s paradoxically pleasant score. As Christian Bale’s character drifts through a lineup of interchangeable women— each one tall, thin, big-eyed and coy— he becomes the literal embodiment of the male gaze, as the women amount to nothing more than different shades of wallpaper. What’s worse, the one woman of color, an Indian model (et tu, Freida Pinto?!), is depicted as an exotic yogi who slurs something about “casting a spell” on Christian Bale’s character. You furiously scribble “orientalism” in your notebook, which is now drawing ink from your own blood.
You live in LA, or perhaps you just wish you did. Either way, as the camera— constantly in motion— passes dispassionately over the greatest hits parade of Los Angeles locales, you feel sparks of recognition: here is the Santa Monica pier, there is the sadly barren LA River, here is Venice Beach, there is an ad-infested Sunset Boulevard, building-sized posters staring out as blankly as the characters in this film. When you lose interest in the film completely, you start to connect these locations to scenes from other movies: there’s a “Hail, Caesar!” scene, there’s an “Inception” scene, there’s a much happier scene from “Grease.” You briefly remember when seeing a movie was actually moving.
To distract from the tedium, you design a “Knight of Cups” Bingo card consisting of the following squares:
- Christian Bale + [interchangeable character] frolicking on the beach
- Highway montage
- Underwater camerawork
- Christian Bale sleeping
- Woo! girls
- Voiceovers in dramatic whispers
When you realize the characters are never going to actually converse with one another, you start trying to parse the impossibly obtuse voiceovers. Your mind jolts back to the beginning of the film, with John Gielgud intoning a passage from John Bunyan’s seminal Christian allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” But before you can recall a hazy lesson from your twelfth grade European History class, the fable shifts. Over a montage of Christian Bale’s character livin’ it up in Tinseltown, the voice of Brian Dennehy (who plays his father) laments the loss of the prodigal son, a prince in search of a pearl who diverted from his path and fell into a deep sleep.
At that point, you should have left. Or fallen into a deep sleep yourself.
The entire film is a nihilistic non sequitur: images out of context and muddled voiceovers (sample: “Don’t go back to being dead” and “You have love in you, I know it”— the latter from Natalie Portman, dredging up memories of her cringe-worthy turn as Padmé Amidala in Star Wars) as well as characters so thinly realized it makes you want to weep for the fate of humanity— and not in a cathartic way. Christian Bale’s character, the supposed “everyman,” wanders around in a daze, goo-like and catatonic, an empty shell of a person, and you realize you’ve been calling him “Christian Bale” because his character— Rick, was it?— feels like a papery husk, floating away at the merest mention. The irony of “Knight of Cups” is that it is a film about a screenwriter that was ostensibly put forth by Malick without a screenplay of its own; actors on camera were encouraged to extemporize as the spirit moved them. The result is painfully awkward, demonstrating a film deeply at odds with itself; it is supposed to be freeing, but instead feels suffocating.
At some point, Christian Bale ends up at a strip club, ogling Teresa Palmer, who is described in the official plot synopsis as “a spirited, playful stripper.” Look how spirited and playful she is! See Teresa. Strip, Teresa, strip. When he asks her name (do men really do that? you wonder), she grins flirtatiously and tells him she can be whomever he wants her to be. “You can be whoever you want to be,” she burbles. Which is the much more heartfelt, hopeful and complex message of “Zootopia,” you realize.
Wes Bentley is Christian Bale’s brother and is overly cheerful and therefore inwardly sad and tragic and has a loft with a cracked mirror and a skateboard.
In the theater, someone’s cell phone rings, and you’re shockingly, sickeningly grateful for the distraction, for the reminder that a world exists outside this Malick monstrosity, a Los Angeles that is not all billboards and bimbos, where the sun shines unmockingly and people smile sincerely.
“Knight of Cups” leaves you feeling unbearably bleak and existentially depressed. You wonder if masochists would gain something from this movie, but you are still so enraged over the insipid thoughtlessness of the film and its specific treatment of women to care.
You really should have seen “Zootopia.”