Muddled, aimless, indecipherable, and shallow, Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups is one of the most insufferable slogs in recent cinema, a soul-crushing waste of a fine cast and some genuinely stunning photography by recent Academy Award winner Emmanuel Luzbecki (The Revenant). There was a time when Malick’s opaque style was a breath of fresh air in a staid medium; now, it’s verging on self-parody.
There’s very little to it: Christian Bale is Rick, a screenwriter living in Los Angeles and in the grips of an thinly detailed existential crisis. He may be struggling with his career, his brother’s suicide, strained relationships with his other sibling (Wes Bentley) and/or father (Brian Dennehy), unresolved issues with his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), the tragedy and heartache he experienced with a married woman (Natalie Portman), all of the above, or even none of the above. It’s difficult to get handle on what Rick’s issues are since he spends almost the entirety of the movie morosely pacing around West L.A. and its beaches and parties with a dead-eyed expression while Bale (and most of the other characters, for that matter) espouse faux profundity via monotonous voice-over narration.
It’s a frustrating, self-absorbed, impenetrable mess of a movie that smugly dares its viewers to find a single reason to give damn about any of it. Occasionally it flirts with indicting Rick for succumbing to the Screenwriter’s Curse — selling out to Hollywood and succumbing to its decadent distractions. That is well-trod ground however, and Knight of Cups says nothing new on the topic when it bothers to say anything at all.
In the standard tarot deck, the Knight of Cups represents a bringer of ideas, artistic and refined but often bored and in constant need of stimulation. That seems an apt summation of Rick, but not so much when it comes to Malick. When he arrived on the scene in the 1970s, that second Golden Age of American cinema, Malick brought a unique and exciting perspective. No, after three consecutive movies drenched in the same self-indulgent claptrap, he seems more like a fraud.