Rating in Stars: **** (out of ****)
Cast: Christian Bale, Brian Dennehy, Wes Bentley, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman
Director: Terrence Malick
MPAA Rating: R (for some nudity, sexuality and language)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 03/04/16 (limited)
One must remember that suffering is relative to the sufferer. A certain Republican Presidential candidate’s woes regarding his father’s “small” loan of a million dollars and the subsequent problems that so “little” money caused for him are, to the wide universe and to any moral measure, as nothing to a child starving in a third-world country. Getting by on an amount of money that doesn’t actually get one very much within his circles, however, is, to the candidate, akin to that child’s starvation in an existential way. Neither he nor the child, in his mind, has it easy when taken in the context of their individual situations. That is neither to defend the candidate’s cheap way of playing victim when he is one of the richest individuals in the world nor to trivialize the starving child’s predicament within economic strife. But, as Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups wisely reasons, suffering is suffering to the individual, no matter what it looks like.
On the privilege scale, the central figure of Malick’s newest slice of poetic visual storytelling in the vein of his two previous efforts, a screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale), is closer to the aforementioned Presidential candidate than a child in an impoverished country. This is a man beset on all sides by an existence mired in materialistic woes to go along with the ones of reflection and regret that come with the territory of a brother who has ended his own life (or so they say). Rick’s other brother Barry (Wes Bentley) is a ball of nerves and rage that explodes out of him when even thinking upon their father (Brian Dennehy), whom they resent for his lack of outward sympathy (Their mother, played by Cherry Jones, was a mostly uninvolved one).
Rick lives a cozy life in a Los Angeles apartment constantly fraught by low-level earthquakes. His writing projects take him to parties and raves populated by celebrities (Recognizable names and faces, such as Antonio Banderas, Kevin Corrigan, Nick Offerman, Clifton Collins Jr., and even Fabio, appear in cameos as themselves or perhaps not) and into the employ of agents played by Michael Wincott, Patrick Whitesell, and Rick Hess who try to “tell [him] about [him]” and to encourage him to take various projects for various studios. Rick, meanwhile, is reflecting on his five failed relationships with women in his life and looking forward to the sixth (played by Isabel Lucas) as the ideal to which he aspires (That a romance with her is, on the face of it, as materialistic as what he’s escaping proves that, perhaps, we do not ever truly change, except in the baby steps of recognizing we must).
In chronological order of when the narrative, split into chapters named after figures on tarot cards, presents them to us, the women are as follows. Della (Imogen Poots) is a free spirit, unencumbered by worries but unsure of her own emotional drive. Helen (Freida Pinto), whom Rick meets at one of those lavish parties, is just in search of a fling after feeling a burden to every man with whom she truly connected. Nancy (Cate Blanchett) is Rick’s ex-wife, who ended because he never felt as if the marriage was worth the trouble of sharing in her enthusiasm for children or even being kind to her after a while. Karen (Teresa Palmer) is a stripper who, like Helen, is only looking for something temporary and distracting. Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is a woman who consciously entered an extramarital affair with Rick that ultimately splinters apart.
These women are not characters, which might inspire controversy in a current climate of examining female roles in cinema, but figureheads that represent much for Rick the roller coaster shifts in his life–from progressing in his romantic pursuits to regressing once again. Each actress, but especially Blanchett and a devastating Portman, is up to the task of Malick’s challenging performance showcase of alternating plaintive gazes with disaffected blank stares (and so, for that matter, is Bale, who excels especially in the quietest moments of a very quiet performance). The film is also another magisterial collaboration between Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who makes a conscious decision to frame the actors mostly from behind, highlighting their disassociation with each other and with their situations). Knight of Cups is stirring, searching, soulful stuff.