The earthquakes in Terrence Malick's film are usually spiritual in nature, but Knight of Cups literally shakes the earth to its core. Early in this empathetic, daring and illusive experimental film a winsome and sorrowful screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale) is jarred awake by a massive tremor. He ventures outside into a horizon of steel and glass where other Angelenos tread lightly, dodging falling potted plants and looking up at the sky as if the tectonic plates were being controlled by the almighty.
Every experience, including this one, reminds Rick of another. Fittingly, Emmanuel Lubezki's lucid camera never stops swinging through space, careening between time periods and settings with the swift ease of a boomerang. Voice-over narration from key characters acts as a philosophical connective tissue, beginning with Ben Kingsley's gripping recital of a key passage from John Bunyan's religious doctrine The Pilgrim's Promise.
While Malick's films often lean on Christian theology to inspire feeling, Knight of Cups does so within an overtly stylized and artificial world. The inherent contradiction is startling. Here, a lonely and weak man's internal crisis becomes an out-of-body experience that stretches from the lunar-like deserts of California to outer space where satellites dance with neon stardust. Somewhere in between is Hollywood itself, a la la land of empty studio back lots and snooty pool parties where Rick finds himself trapped between soulful longing and perennial excess.
The urban setting of Knight of Cups stands in contrast to Malick's usual use of rural milieus, most notably the quiet and endless Midwest prairies of To the Wonder. But this shift befits Rick's emotional claustrophobia. He's boxed in not only by structures of modern design, but also memories and instincts. Whether he's walking through an aquarium, reaching out and touching the glass or perusing a sandy Southern California beach with a past lover (Natalie Portman), he is perpetually caught between moments.
If the futuristic sections of Malick's The Tree of Life envision a dystopian city of industry where Sean Penn's wanderer can no longer see the walls of his own making, Knight of Cups purposefully calls attention to those very barriers. Rick is less a character than a searcher, a lost vessel that keeps bumping up against the borders of his surroundings. Listening to the mosaic of voices that flood his perspective, including those of his tormented brother (Wes Bentley), resolute ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), or melancholy mother (Cherry Jones), these collisions seem to evoke the thorny process of remembering.
Rick's broken father (Brian Dennehy) reminisces about "the pieces of your life," an idea that crystalizes into something more profound thanks to the film's enigmatic editing style. What initially seems like a series of incoherent rendezvous builds toward a greater awakening of self-reflection and patience. The extended finale involving a hopeful vision of Rick's progress exemplifies the great malleability of Knight of Cups.
Like all of Malick's films, ultimate meaning lies in the cinematic crescendo, and his latest is no different. Though Rick's entanglement in Hollywood's artifice remains intact, breaking free now feels like a choice rather than a burden. If Rick has been collecting the confessions of others all along, he's done so to finally write his own. One of the last nimble images lingers on a naked woman swimming in a posh pool before suddenly scaling a rock formation and zooming down an open road. Thinking outside the box will set you free.
Knight of Cups, which opens Friday, March 11, never fully condemns the lavish virtual reality of Hollywood. For example, the womanizing louse played by Antonio Banderas doesn't pretend to be anything other than a womanizing louse. Instead, the film refuses to sympathize with those people who, like Rick, toe the line between self-pity and opportunism. Malick patiently asks his protagonist to embrace the artifice of life or transcend it to find affirmation elsewhere. Just don't settle for the moody purgatory in between.