I can’t escape the feeling that Terrence Malick just walked around with his cinematographer Lubezki and just filmed whatever they came across, trusting that the film would be created in editing, and that the brain’s power of association would make a loose story out of it in the viewer’s skull. Like: “hey guys, let’s go to the wharf and see what we can find. Oh, look there is a pelican. Let’s walk around it slowly and film it. I’m sure it will mean something when we paste some whispering narration over it. See how the pelican is shy? Maybe it is a metaphor for people shying away from life or something. Remember the plastic bag in American Beauty.”
I joke. Let’s dive deeper into this. The movie stars Christian Bale as the titular “Knight of Cups”, but he doesn’t really say anything during this movie. He plays a man living in California in modern times and we see him drifting through life. He has a successful life with a good job and full of parties, but it is like his mind is never there. He’s is always staring out of windows, silently, moving through life like a ghost. Most of the spoken lines are actually narration; something about a knight who came to Egypt, drank out of a cup and lost his memory, and then wandered through life having forgotten his original purpose. But the knight is still being send messengers to help him.
The camera is constantly moving. We follow Bale from his back as he wanders everywhere. The camera rushes over roads, past cityscapes and landscapes. It is all very beautiful to look at. I suppose we see Bale’s life rushing by, as if he is actually dying and his life flashes by in front of his eyes. But there is hardly a story. There are hardly any real characters. Bale plays a man devoid of spiritual self who tries to find love and himself, but never really finds either. People in his life are messengers on this quest.
Like The Tree of Life (2010), it speaks in metaphor, visuals and feelings. The story, chopped up in chapters with metaphorical names, follows how different messengers enter the Knight’s life. A lover; a brother. The visuals have deeper meanings, like “Bale” looking at other people having fun through a window. Or him walking after his father. My guess is that the film makes some point about his relationship with his father, and about how relationships uncover different facets of himself, but it is all rather vague. One relationship represents judgement, another represents experience, and so on.
This is difficult film to stick with but also easy on the eyes to make you stay. There is a rather unique aspect about this movie and that is that while it tries to overwhelm you with visual imagery, I never more had the feeling that I was trapped inside someone’s numb mind, trying to find escape from the self in everyday experience. Like staring out of a moving car with a hangover. The narration floats in and out of the story, and every time that happens we are reminded that what we see on the screen is not where the storytelling is happening directly. The camerawork is just the illustration. It’s best not to think too hard about every shot.
Like Malick’s other films, Knight of Cups is dreamy and moody, and this one left me with a feeling of sadness. But it is also a bit vacuous and Bale’s character is hard to identify with. The “story” is so focused on finding meaning in life externally, through beauty, the senses and relationships, that the central character doesn’t seem to have any character at all. There is a focus on beauty as messenger of truth that transforms the women in the film into walking ideas and it makes the “Knight” come across as an empty vessel. I wanted it to mean more. I’m not taking any message away from it or a deeper understanding of anything, but only some feelings.