Knight Of Cups opens with a proverb about a prince who travels to a far-off land in search of a pearl, only to be drugged and find his memory erased. A more perfect analogy for Knight Of Cups you couldn’t wish for. Terrence Malick’s Hollywood tale is a frustratingly fleeting experience, a sleepwalk through Tinseltown that beguiles you with its visual artistry but leaves only the faintest of impressions when the curtain falls.
Broken into chapters named after Tarot cards, it charts Christian Bale’s comedy writer, Rick, as he endures a personal crisis. The Hanged Man is, we’re led to assume, a reference to his brother’s suicide, a tragedy that is tearing at the fabric of his family. His prodigal brother (Wes Bentley) is an angry, occasionally glimpsed presence; his father (Brian Dennehy) lurks guiltily on the outskirts. Rick seems only half-engaged in it all, his grief manifesting in a lethargic glaze and lots of wistful looks into the distance.
As with To The Wonder, Malick maps his slowly shifting circumstances in fragmentary scenes, with disconnected cut-aways flipping from the minutiae of his life to staggering Californian vistas and back again. There’s a small earthquake; Rick does some brotherly bonding in a warehouse; he turns up at a bash thrown by Antonio Banderas’ Hollywood big shot. The visuals dazzle, but the overall effect is of a jigsaw with half its pieces missing.
Bale, usually such a forceful presence, struggles to bring extra depth to a heavily-improvised role. Rick is not a barrel of chuckles. He roams LA’s backlots and fleshpots with the look of a man awaiting a date with the proctologist. Beautiful women (Cate Blanchett, Freida Pinto and Natalie Portman among them) flock to his side, but on and on he drifts. It’s a futile pursuit of happiness that takes him to Las Vegas and offers a tantalising glimpse of what Malick’s Swingers might have looked like.
You’d expect Malick, the Texan outsider and a filmmaker with a keen interest in the spiritual, to be less of a supplicant to this Entourage-lite world of pole-dancing clubs, glossy parties and beachfront pads. As a look at the Hollywood excess, it’s all strangely unquestioning, like Helmut Newton snuck into the edit and added more nudey bits.