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Terrence Malick's 'Knight of Cups' is a Story Searching for its Hero

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DOURTESY DOGWOOD FILMS, FILMNATION ENTERTAINMENT, WAYPOINT ENTERTAINMENT
  • Dourtesy Dogwood Films, FilmNation Entertainment, Waypoint Entertainment


Halfway through Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups, which opens Friday at The Flicks, Rick (Christian Bale) steps into his Los Angeles apartment to find two men ransacking it. They rob Rick at gunpoint and wonder aloud why he doesn't have any valuables worth stealing.

The movie up to this moment has been dreamy, a haze of emotional, sexual and material excess. Finally, there's some action.

The thug's pistol trained on the hero—such as he is—brings reality crashing in with a sickening weight, but it's short-lived. The knots in Rick's stomach slowly untangle and he returns to his dissolute life as a screenwriter searching for meaning in Hollywood.

Knight of Cups will leave audiences wobbling out of theaters, destined for some soul searching of their own, but it's not a movie for everyone. Malick doesn't pull the levers of plot, characterization or setting in familiar ways. He isn't telling a story, he's building a man, and his project places the burden of applying a narrative squarely on viewers' shoulders.

In an opening voice over, Ben Kingsley relays the story of a knightly prince who drinks an amnesia elixir and forgets his royal lineage. Rick holds the promise of having a hidden, illustrious heritage, but his life has fallen into disrepair. He squabbles with lovers—notably with his ex-wife, Nancy, played to perfection by Cate Blanchett—and he's on the periphery of his own family and professional lives. Rick's existence unspools in the middle-ground between other people in his life and a world of symbols. He's so battered by the winds of others' activity that he'll make audiences self-conscious about being too passive in their own lives.

The film is divided into eight chapters corresponding loosely to significant figures in Rick's life, but also tarot cards. Each chapter rolls out a torrent of symbols, including the moon, water, the sky, trees and buildings that subsume the foreground, with the drama playing out at arms length.

In the "The Hanged Man" chapter, the tension between Rick's manic brother, Barry (Wes Bentley) and thwarted father, Joseph (Brian Dennehy), fails to resolve itself in derelict buildings, childhood homes and on weather-beaten rooftops. The "Hermit," zillionaire sensualist Tonio (Antonio Banderas), lives among throngs of other zillionaires but treats other people like "flavors" to be tasted and put aside. 

Knight of Cups is cut at the pace of life, Malick's camera as finicky as a anyone's wandering gaze. It has no conceits and withholds no information, only capturing what is most significant to Rick. By that measure, each shot is luminous with human feeling. No, not everyone will enjoy the film, but those who do will see how Rick's experience, shaped by hands both visible and invisible, is uncannily like their own.