Rick is a powerful player in the film industry, but he is finding as he approaches middle age that his work and indeed play does not satisfy him anymore, and he begins to ponder why that is, as he has plenty of time to contemplate his situation. Could it be because he lost his son, or has a strained relationship with his father (Brian Dennehy), or because his marriage to Nancy (Cate Blanchett) broke up without him able to forge a meaningful relationship since? Or is it a more spiritual malaise? He remembers being told of a tale of ancient times when the King of the East sent his son, the Prince, West to Egypt where they gave him a special potion that made him forget his place in the world, yet the King never stopped trying to retrieve him...
Director Terrence Malick continued to alienate both fans and casual viewers alike with Knight of Cups (named after the Tarot card), as his reputation as one of American cinema's master craftsmen slid further into what was regarded as insufferable self-indulgence. To the Wonder, the work that had been released before this one, had been greeted not with his usual acclaim but more of a collective, wait, what? Is this even finished properly? Which was benevolent in comparison to how this was received, with more of an indignant reaction that demanded to know why we should be at all interested in the problems and angst of a wealthy and privileged male who was more keen on navel gazing than doing anything productive.
By this stage, Malick was delving into his improvisational technique, winding up his actors with vague directions and almost no dialogue then letting them go, after which he spent an inordinate amount of time putting it all together in the editing room and adding voiceovers (including one by an unseen Ben Kingsley) heaving with significance to tie the various scenes into what he hoped was a coherent whole. Most viewers were sceptical that this approach paid any dividends whatsoever when they found the consequences more of a test of the patience than an existential examination of what it meant to be human, but then, what if Malick was falling back on a more religious style? What if he had found a faith in the Almighty was more bolstering?
The theme would seem to be that to attain enlightenment we needed to suffer, therefore Rick was being sent through his own purgatory to achieve his ultimate goal of blessing from whatever supreme being he may believe in. With a title referring to Tarot, it would seem a more paranormal state of existence was being presented, and there was indeed a Tarot reading early on which set our hero on his course of self-discovery, yet there were also references to Catholic religious beliefs, as when Armin Mueller-Stahl showed up in priestly gear and told us the meaning of what we had just watched, helpful but tending to be lost in the melange of sweeping montage that the entire movie consisted of. And there was another problem: if Rick really was suffering, then you could have fooled us, he looked to be having a rare old time.
Not five minutes would go by without Bale cavorting with some younger actress or model, and if your fetish was for barefoot women then Knight of Cups was the experience for you, it would send you into paroxysms of delight to witness so many unshod plates belonging to such attractive ladies. So much so that it came across as if Malick was operating a subterfuge: "Oh yeah, Terrence Malick, he’s really important, right? Sure, we’d love to be in his movie! What? Don’t bring my shoes? Uh... OK..." If this actually was the venerated filmmaker exercising his twin interests in higher matters and sprightly females, you had to grudgingly admire him for getting his way, but it did seem as if the end result was more incidental to the actual shooting of the footage, and it was more of a woozy, beautifully photographed collection of snippets from a scrapbook than it was a conventional movie. Yet for all that, if you could adjust to its pace without falling asleep then it wasn't exactly painful to watch unless you were frustrated when you wanted more specifics and were simply not getting them. You could always spend the two hours star-spotting.