Knight of Cups starts out with a story within the story about a prince in search of a pearl. One day, the prince forgets who he is, that he is a prince and that he is searching for the pearl. This theme is repeated visually and verbally throughout the movie. Check out a simplified review of Knight of Cups here.
One Foot Inferno, Two Foot Paradise
Christian Bale’s character in the Knight of Cups, “the prince,” is by most standards, a “somebody.” He’s got money, wealth, some sort of fame, notoriety and all the women he can fuck. He lives in Los Angeles. By other standards, he’s a “nobody” because every human connection he has in his life is tenuous at best.
He has a dysfunctional family who he mostly hates, which is the only reason we are given as to why he has become so lost. He partly blames himself, but he doesn’t seem repentant. What he blames himself for remains a mystery throughout Knight of Cups.
The prince goes from woman to woman, job to job, claiming (in voiceovers and in visual metaphors) that he has not been living his life, that he is not himself. But again, he doesn’t seem repentant and seems to enjoy his life. This also makes him a “nobody.” He is not a real character, just a place holder. I can’t remember if he even has a name. He is simply the prince, or the Knight of Cups, searching for the pearl and who has lost his memory.
This is not an accident–it’s the point of the whole movie. He can be anyone. But he’s not the “everyman,” and he’s not even truly a nobody or a no one. He is a sort of limbo character whose life is a mix of hell and heaven. He chooses his life just as much as it may be have been thrust upon him and repeatedly claims he’s lost his way, though he clearly makes choices with gusto.
Limit: One Woman per Chapter
Knight of Cups is broken up into chapters separated by the sort of titles used in silent movies–a black background with a white text title. The chapters have names like “the Moon” and “the High Priestess,” presumably referring to the women that come in and out of his life. He’s not actually able to reach any of these women, even the one he was married to.
The Knight of Cup’s women are the true protagonists of this story. We get more information about them than we do about the prince through his futile pursuit of connecting with them. Each of them seems to be an excuse for some aspect of his personality that we never get to see.
Beautiful but Weak
Knight of Cups is beautifully crafted. The photography, the sets, the costumes are all perfect. One couldn’t ask for more. This craftiness seems more important than the actual story, which is at best weak–basically “Little Boy Lost.” What we end up with is a tone poem, abstract though recognizable.
But instead of being an impactful depiction of a character or characters that we can relate to, it is a masturbatory romp through the filmmakers’ simple thoughts on being–which we nevertheless relate to.
The True Story Is Omitted
We relate to the self-pleasing choices of Knight of Cups’ filmmakers, and they are the reason we enjoy the film. The anecdotal voiceovers and philosophical meanderings of the wayward characters do not make us question anything and do not reveal anything concrete about the characters, especially not the prince. The true story, for the most part, is omitted, and we are left with the shells of its inhabitants.
Vast Uncertainty to Some
The penultimate chapter of Knight of Cups is called “Death,” another heavy-handed choice. One of the lasting images in this denouement is that of a pier near the beach home of the prince after his married girlfriend tells him she had an abortion of a baby that may have been his. It is the perfect metaphor for the character, the story and the movie itself. Though beautiful, the pier is a bridge that goes nowhere except for the Ocean, which is a vast uncertainty to some.
In this chapter, there is a good example of the kind of randomness we are provided throughout the movie. We are shown the prince standing alone in the California desert after the abortion scene. We are then shown a scene where he, his father and brother fight around a dinner table, smashing up the dining room in rage.
Finally, we are shown the prince’s presumable childhood home (that ancestral suburban family home that Terrence Malick loves so much), replete with manicured green lawns and backyard tree swings. It is a series of scenes that is beautifully wrought, but also one that gives us no insight or food for thought and that doesn’t make us ask any questions.
The last chapter of Knight of Cups, “Freedom,” shows the prince wandering around a large estate with a woman and a baby, still lost, just as we are, having witnessed a 118-minute sequence of his incoherently strung-together life events.