Beautiful people wander the byways and beaches of Los Angeles, mumbling to themselves while searching for meaning in random encounters, erotic and mystical. No surprise that Knight of Cups is the work of Terrence Malick, a cinema poet whose recent work has shifted from dreamy (The Tree of Life) to droning (To the Wonder). Its title derived from a symbol-freighted Tarot card, the movie casts Christian Bale as a modern pilgrim, a Hollywood writer adrift in malaise and outdoor parties where the biggest star I spotted was — yikes — Ryan O’Neal. The writer exasperates his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), impregnates a married woman (Natalie Portman), and screws around with an exotic model (Freida Pinto), a spirited Aussie (Teresa Palmer) and a free-thinker (Imogen Poots) who tells him, “We’re not leading the lives we were meant for.” Tell me about it, honey.
Maybe all the fucking he’s doing has sucked the life force out of our anti-hero. It sure as hell frustrates his dad (Brian Dennehy), who in a classic case of stating the obvious, declares: “My son, you can’t figure your life out.” Malick has enlisted acting royalty to help him get lost in his private reveries. Blanchett is the only one who looks impatient to get on with it. I feel her pain. Of course, the iconic cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — who just collected an Oscar for The Revenant to go with the others he won for Gravity and Birdman — can make even suicidal inertia look gorgeous.
Since Malick runs from even a hint of plot, it’s up to us to draw conclusions. Here’s mine: After two hours of watching the rich not enjoying their privileges, I felt like smacking them with the Tarot cards Malick uses to divide his tale into chapters. Must all films about alienation be themselves alienating? Take a walk on the beach and ponder that one. There’s a line between artful and arty, and Malick has crossed it.