When I first read the synopsis for Terrence Malick’s latest offering, Knight of Cups, I had some concerns. How was Malick, as visionary and unique a director as he is, going to pack six female love interests into a two hour film without making every female character entirely one-dimensional? The answer is simply that he isn’t. And so what we’re left with is film that is the very definition of the male gaze, as our protagonist, a hard-living screenwriter named Rick (Christian Bale), makes his way through a slew of lithe, impossibly beautiful women that just so happen to be played by some of the most talented actresses in the industry.
To be clear, my issue with Knight of Cups is not that the hero (or antihero, as it may be) goes through women faster than Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoot. There are many films with dickish protagonists with little care for the women in their lives that I quite enjoy – Buffalo 66, American Psycho and Listen Up Philip, to name a few. And considering the fact that Bale only received a brief character description and no script, he did a pretty killer job of creating someone the audience actually cares to watch, as he stumbles around beaches, the desert and hotel rooms and stares out of windows, presumably wondering, “Will I ever find a women skinny and hot enough to fulfill my unquenchable desires?” That’s probably because Bale is a brooding, thoughtful looking bloke not to mention a bona fide movie star who doesn’t need to do much onscreen to be captivating.
My issue is the treatment – namely the underdevelopment – of the female characters, especially given the prowess of the actresses this so-called creative genius can attract. Malick gives us the following:
A stripper (Teresa Palmer) who loves her job almost as much as she loves being pushed around in shopping carts.
A model (Freida Pinto) whose one photoshoot we get to see is questionable at best. The scene does, however, offer a hefty dose of Kelly Cutrone, giving The City-esque fabulousness. It might have been my favorite part of the movie.
A woman who cheats on her husband (Natalie Portman). Natalie Portman cry face level 10!
A… hooker? actress? I’m not sure what Imogen Poots was even supposed to be but she definitely looks like she shops at Hot Topic.
A jilted ex-wife, who was not only Cate Blanchett but also a doctor to the impoverished. Why would you ever let this woman get away, Rick?!
And finally, a largely faceless blonde (Isabel Lucas) given absolutely no attributes. All we know is she loves swimming naked in pools and also appears to be “the one.”
Each of these characters gets anywhere from 6-15 minutes of screen time (estimating here, but I really think that’s accurate). In some cases, they aren’t even introduced, they just kind of appear and vanish just as quickly. In fact, the male gaze is so heavy-handed, oftentimes we see these women from Rick’s POV, as he chases them down the beach or over beds and couches.
Don’t get me wrong, I love me some Malick – particularly Badlands, Days of Heaven and, more recently, Tree of Life – but Knight of Cups was just another notch on Hollywood’s sexist belt. Now will someone please find a director who will make a film featuring Cate Blanchett and Natalie Portman in which they actually appear in the same scene? Thank you.