Knight of Cups ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

"Where did I go wrong?" ~ Rick

It begins with fragments. Desert. Poetry. Seashore. Los Angeles. Flashbacks. A ketamine party. Earthquake. Ribbons of concrete. Writer-director Terrence Malick certainly knows how to get our minds spinning before he launches into his story of a privileged white male indulging himself with women and self pity.

After the confusing 11-minute opening, this film is divided into eight labeled segments, the first being called "The Moon." A Hollywood scriptwriter named Rick (Christian Bale) hooks up with a free-spirited woman called Della (Imogen Poots). Then, in "The Hanged Man," Rick flashes back to his relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and remembering their father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) and the supposed suicide of their other brother Billy.

To this point, a quarter of the way in, there was mostly confusion in my mind as to what this film might be about. And the next sequence, "The Hermit," didn't shed a whole lot of light as Rick is shown as a womanizer along with the wealthy party-giver Tonio (Antonio Banderas). While giving a tour to his opulent estate, Tonio tells Rick that in this world, "There are no principles, only circumstances."

In "Judgment," former wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), a doctor who is much older and unable to have children, tells Rick that "The world absorbed you" and he became unkind, "almost cruel." Rick blames his youth and "fear of life" for their failure as a couple. Then, in "The Tower," Rick meets the fashion model Helen (Freida Pinto), who has tired of "wreaking havoc on men's lives" and believes there's "somewhere else we need to get to."

Throughout the journey to the half-way point, Joseph's voiceover has provided some allegorical clues to the possible significance of the disjointed, non-chronological scenes. He tells the story of an errant knight who was poisoned to sleep and of the king, his father, seeking him and alluding to a pearl of some importance.

We briefly encounter Rick's mother Ruth (Cherry Jones) and see him robbed at gunpoint by two thieves. Rick ponders the wasteland that is his life, 30 years of achieving nothing. Then, in "The High Priestess," he meets an Aussie stripper named Karen (Teresa Palmer), who is totally committed to the concept of the world as pure fantasy -- which, of course, leads them to Las Vegas, and it's there that he encounters the innocent Isabel (Isabel Lucas).

In the section entitled "Death," we are introduced to Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who is married to the Zen-inspired elderly artist Chrisopher (Peter Matthiessen) but falls in love with Rick anyway. And he seems to indicate that she's what he's been in search of all his life. But when she learns that she's preggers, and it's not at all clear whose child she's carrying, things head south. Yep, it's complicated.

Father Zeitling (Armin Mueller-Stahl) makes an appearance to give us a homily on the virtues of suffering. Right. We see Rick and Barry in a confrontation with Joseph over what? Maybe the death of Ruth? Or Billy? How to know? The point is that they don't all get along.

The final segment, "Freedom," gives us Rick with Isabel in a sprawling coastal home with a toddling son, but also Rick wandering along in a rocky high desert landscape. Images of water suggest something panicky, maybe sinister, and there are sequences of driving along empty roads. You were expecting something else, perhaps?

The film kinda sorta works as an artistic statement on the spiritual hollowness and moral decay brought about by a focus on material wealth and social success. It provides some wonderful images to gaze upon and gives us lots of our favorite actors in brief appearances. But is it movie I could fully appreciate? Not really. It's just too damn enigmatic for it's own good, and I've got to rate it as the Malick film I like least of the seven I've seen to date. A shame.

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