Knight of Cups (2 stars)

Knight of Cups

Visually stunning but narratively disappointing drama from Terrence Malick

Teaming auteur Terrence Malick with powerhouse performers Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman should, in theory, have resulted in fireworks. Instead, Knight of Cups is a damp squib, its arresting visuals an artistic smokescreen for a barely-there story that is unoriginal, incoherent and alarming in its treatment of women.

Bale is tortured screenwriter Rick who, despite earning literal wads of cash, is unhappy. Searching for meaning, he embarks on a series of liaisons with a procession of impossible women who, it is suggested, help him discover his true self.

Unfortunately there’s no sense that Rick undertakes any kind of journey, psychologically or emotionally. His angry interactions with his father (Brian Dennehy) hint at fraternal discord, but this idea is never given any traction. Neither, too, is Rick’s search for connection in a landscape of artifice; as he drifts through the unreal worlds of Los Angeles and Las Vegas, he is too much of an abstract character to lend weight to this theme.

Instead the film’s primary focus is the female form. Women cavort, frolic and seduce in various states of undress; a stripper (Teresa Palmer) spouts philosophy from the stage, a model (Freida Pinto) stretches languidly by a pool, and so on. Blanchett and Portman – as Rick’s wife and lover respectively – are given a little more to work with but are, like the rest, reduced to nothing more than interchangeable ciphers for Rick’s anguish. Whether nymphs, paramours or mothers, these are characters hewn entirely from adolescent fantasy.

Yes, the film looks stunning – it’s creatively lensed by master cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Narratively, however, it is an endurance test; for all its professions of originality, this is just another self-indulgent tale of an entitled man’s journey to enlightenment. As such, Knight of Cups becomes the very thing it claims to satirise, a gilded chalice that reveals itself to be an entirely empty vessel.

Selected release from Fri 6 May.

Knight of Cups

  • 2 stars
  • 2015
  • US
  • 1h 58min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Terrence Malick
  • Cast: Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Wes Bentley, Imogen Poots
  • UK release: 6 May 2016

Tortured screenwriter Rick (Bale) drifts through Los Angeles and Las Vegas having liaisons with a procession of impossible women who help him discover his true something-or-other. Stunning-looking, but its treatment of women is purely adolescent and it's just another tale of an entitled man's journey to enlightenment.