This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
AngelsArcanum’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The Knight of Cups. He comes in the form of a man named 'Rick'. Rick is a hollow man, we know very little about him, but he takes shape through the people whose lives he becomes a part of. The quest of the Knight of Cups is to search through an ocean for a pearl, but this is a modern world - Rick is no knight of the traditional sense, armor-clad, a warrior, perhaps serving a fiefdom. No, he isn't that. This isn't some fantasy world where a pearl is some solid wish-granting object, it's something more abstract, and so too is what the "ocean" is in which he must find the pearl.
It can be said that the encompassed content of the film itself is his quest, his urban landscape his ocean bearing a pearl, but it isn't quite concrete and things change shape.
Rick has an apartment with only the bare essentials, it might as well be a hotel room to him; he only returns to it when he is in-between romantic interests, a temporary resting point.
When there is a storm (or maybe more of an earthquake), Rick's apartment starts to rattle and things inside begin to break, we see his little sanction - his lifestyle, is at risk of crumbling apart. Almost as if a message from the heavens, we see a shot of a pot falling down from above, framed like it came out of the sky and not the roof of the building as if otherworldly forces are telling Rick to carry out his journey of destiny.
Rick is disillusioned in certain ways, and he aimlessly and forwardly tries to absolve his existence. After the storm/quake, he starts feeling the ground almost like a caress - a desire to merge with nature itself as I've heard some say, but of course, to no avail. His episodic romantic pursuits begin and he tries to assimilate into the women he encounters at first but he keeps getting a nagging feeling that things won't work out with that person, perhaps another curse of the gods not allowing him to give in so easily - having a slight hand in veering him the right way, directing his love and energy to find more of himself.
Imogen Poots' character is the most enigmatic as the first courtship, almost totally vague in how she is characterized while espousing some indirect insights and hints to what Rick should be doing and how to reflect on his life, almost like she herself was a spiritual ploy to tease him.
Rick has an outreaching and boundless yet timid love, his Eden seems to be the size of the metropolitan world itself, but it is that scale and lack of tempered intimacy that has made him feel an aching emptiness.
The common sightings of pools in people's residences, another shackle and reminder to Rick, but also a false image. They are sterile, small and enclosed, friendly and safe(r) compared to the seaside Rick keeps tiptoeing about for some relief, and drawn to their vast, natural expanse while afraid of their dark depths.
Which ties in heavily with Rick's character and the film's musings on happiness and security; Rick is heavily tethered to things that can bring some immediate joy, and he tries to bury his anxieties in these more easily acquired events of delight while more meaningful bliss can be found through overcoming a struggle and the ephemeral fun outings slowly lose their luster.
There's some chapters involving Rick's father and brother, more realized shackles to his sadness, his real life, his purpose. His brother lives in above a small clothing store or something in a more impoverished area. Rick feels grief by the decay around him and wants to escape it, at the very least to just deal with only his family.
Rick's brother is in conflict with his father who in turn is disappointed with Rick's stagnation and his brother's poor conditions too. Rick wants to mend their emotional ties as he is stuck with the biological ones, but Rick is not quite himself, so he can't really fix things when he is not the Knight of Cups.
The use of clashing sounds, between mutually diegetic and maybe between two non-diegetic pieces along with mixes of both help build that atmosphere of a chaotic world; like a particularly striking scene where a woman playing a harp is drowned out by police sirens for example.
Rick's urges for quick affection are so strong that he even brings along suitors when he takes limousine rides and such, a desperate insatiable yearning.
We learn that Rick at one point was in a committed relationship with Cate Blanchett's character, but it is perhaps her vocation as a doctor giving attention to many blighted people and not being totally enraptured in Rick himself that lead to Rick's alienation and their split. They had moments of strong connection which still eats at Rick's mind, but he keeps moving on.
Next is Frieda Pinto's character as the model who is very gleeful and spiritual, but that also happens to be what restricts Rick - she is more self-actualized and genuinely content while being able to see Rick's wandering, misguided soul and she is instead the one who tells him to keep searching despite having some fanciful play of their own.
A dejected Rick then goes to a strip club and meets an alluring free spirit like himself, a girl who takes life for all it is and is a malleable adventurer, they spend a fair amount of time together - their mutual lack of direction forms a strong bond for a while, but Rick can't quite settle for that after all and moves on yet again, he realizes this pearl is perhaps a fake.
The (sort-of) final romance is with Natalie Portman's character, a married woman who Rick happens upon but her concept of love is one that intrigues him and feels so earnest - that love shouldn't be a contract and agreement of words, but a primal sensation of euphoria, togetherness and completion. Things get really serious between the two as Rick cheerfully plunges into the sea with her in exultation like he has accomplished his task and feels proud that he was in the right waters and found the right pearl, but alas, Portman says she is pregnant and isn't sure whether it's her husband's child or Rick's and she has an overwhelming feeling of weakness as she pushes Rick away in worry, needing to recollect herself. Rick has a vision of a serene family life with her and their child, seeing the magic of it.
Portman's character may in fact have been the pearl, the city - the ocean, like images of the meticulous, fantastical art they viewed may dictate (elaborate model car track with dozens of cars going around these sleek buildings on complicated roads like a completely encompassed satisfaction tying together all the ground shots of going through the city peppered throughout the film) but in experiencing that involuntary sadness through heartbreak, Rick realizes how much Portman meant to him - how special true love felt. Thus he achieves clarity of wanting to become a more complete person, to remember the Knight he once was.
He meets with his father one last time for help in his total emotional bareness now, along with a priest to set a light along his path. He goes through a desert of burned up houses, ashes, traces of a lost paradise to build upon anew. When Rick goes to the beach next, this time it is filled with people - further evidence that in his goal for self-improvement, he won't find his answers here. Rick also tags along with one last girl, but her face tends to be rather obscured and she is largely inconsequential to him, she is perhaps one of the final guides and his final empty fling before he becomes a changed man.
We finally see a shot of Rick, Christian Bale now in a naked, underwater shot with him heading towards the light of the surface. His hair in the next shot of him is unkempt, his expression of a burning vigor to chase the light. His apartment is essentially empty now, totally clean with hardly a trace of any occupancy, he finally takes that countryside road, the nature at his sides, the large hills, the bright dawn ahead, Rick's quest is on land, it is away from the city, into the unknown. He drives onwards. The last image isn't a solid, crisp endcap like To the Wonder, it's just another shot of travelling a pretty road. The pearl is beyond the film.
On this second viewing, as typical of Malick films (need I even say it?) I've learned more, more pieces of this particular (never-ending) puzzle in his collection have fallen into place, and I've got some footing on what I enjoy about the film and how it is so affecting. If anything though, this is perhaps his most challenging film yet, as this review feels more like me trying to self-validate and lay out some thoughts so I can boil over this piece of his. Whereas Malick's other films leave me awestruck and entirely captured in the moment, this one really has me wanting to fit things together, and I can see why some may not like this.
People have called To the Wonder unsatisfying with its lack of noticeable relationship closure, but in TTW, Malick used the vague shot of Affleck's Neil in a new family I believe and Kurylenko's Marina seeing a golden light before that final image of Mont Saint-Michel from a distance, perfectly framing the marriage and circle of land, sea and air and also--as Wikipedia put it--"Mont Saint-Michel remains rooted to the earth with its spire piercing heaven." All is right with the world.
Here, the resolution of the film's conflict is even more bare as it ends at the true start of Rick's quest, the film's entirety being largely about putting him on the right track, but there is still enough spiritual and intellectual meat to form things together with and make for another fascinating Malick creation.
Even the characters which many have seemed to call "ciphers" help serve the ideas and the eye of the narrative (Rick's) for the film. He ultimately can't assimilate or even fully unite with the women because he has abandoned his sense of humanity so much that he can't fully understand the intricacies of each of the women and why he can't integrate himself with their states of being, struggles and emotions. Further still he is bound to his mortal coils of being a flesh and blood human and not just a soul, he has a problem piercing the body and bridging the minds and souls.
I think this unorthodox manner of characterization for everyone, which in most other films would be seen as slight, still manages to hold some more raw connections to the viewer as opposed to say Tree of Life I think. The way the boy of TTOL acted on rather predictable, Oedipal tendencies and the broadness of it all made me rather indifferent and a bit annoyed because it felt kind of strained as if the causation of things were almost contrived for certain ideas even.
Here, we see the (more) loosely painted women and Rick himself bounce off each other, revealing certain dynamics to how he wants to find love and how he is drawn to certain women and appreciates them the way he does. It's more scarce than you may want upfront, but it holds some curiosity into wanting to care and think about them in grander ways, it held my interest well.
I won't fault the film's ending really, it pulled off the deliberate manner of being unsatisfying in a satisfying way if that makes any sense and the comparisons I had to La Dolce Vita and Showgirls washed away and Malick's originality and vision shone over, but I think there could be more precision like maybe shortening the film down a bit, better evidence for Rick cutting things off with the stripper perhaps and just a little more "oomph" to really get me, although that could be me still needing to find the film's pure musical essence as a poem.
Nonetheless, another great entry. Malick, you keep doing you! :D