Among the multitude of wondrous images Terrence Malick has conjured over his elusive career, one that recurs is of a man wandering through the wilderness. Similar imagery bookends his latest film Knight of Cups, which marks a continuation of the trend in his recent work (The Tree of Life, To The Wonder) to cast aside a more traditional plot framework for a deluge of consciousness, marked by fleeting sequences and thought-provoking ideas. For Malick detractors, Knight of Cups in no way attempts to change your opinion about the director, but those attune to the rhythms at which he operates will find satisfaction, even if it comes with some anguish. There are a few who have argued that Knight of Cups is one of Malick’s funnier films (mostly in its depiction of Los Angeles), but it is also likely his most dour, an irony that certainly is not lost by the director or his main characters. To them it underscores the inherent paradox of our existence, how our presence on an earth with such beauty can feel both serendipitous and deliberate. Knight of Cups dives headlong into these questions and many more, and while it may not have any answers, it finds plenty of truth nonetheless.
The man wandering through Malick’s wilderness here is Rick (Christian Bale), who appears to be a Hollywood screenwriter, yet we hardly ever see him actually working. Instead he can be found exercising his hedonistic tendencies at every turn. Whether cruising the streets of Los Angeles in his convertible, partying at a celebrity’s extravagant home, or bedding every young lady he encounters, Rick’s gluttony for pleasure is really a manifestation of his aimless desires. At first it comes off as an elaborate ruse, but after a while we realize that Rick is painfully, hopelessly lost. Even the more ordinary aspects of his life—such as the few moments he appears on a studio backlot or when he visits with his financial advisor—are met with distraction. Whether Rick ambles through urban, man-made environs or sparse expanses of desert, his disillusionment knows no bounds.
This cascades to his relationship with women as well, and he comes across many throughout Knight of Cups. Yet none of them seem to crack his hardened exterior of indifference, and any spark of attraction lives and ultimately dies at a surface level. Rick’s ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) even remarks, “You never really wanted to be totally inside our marriage, or outside it, either.” We are clued into Rick’s view of these women by how they are photographed by long-time Malick DP Emmanuel Lubezki. Often with heads and limbs outside of the frame, their gyrating and frolicking naked bodies no longer look human. Instead they are an abstraction, a visual metaphor for temptation—but also an otherworldly beauty. Some might argue that this depiction fuels the charge that Malick is overly fixated on masculine enervation, and there is not much to refute this except that to Rick they have an almost angelic quality. In one particular voiceover (which Knight of Cups has many), we hear, “When we see a beautiful woman, or a man, the soul remembers the beauty it used to know in heaven. And wings begin to spout, and that makes the soul want to fly.” This is even reinforced in a sequence where a model adorns an X mark behind each of her shoulders, hinting to the place where wings once appeared.
The connection is not off-base in a film that largely takes place in the City of Angels. For a filmmaker known best for capturing enthralling landscapes and the splendors of the natural world, it is a considerable departure for Malick to set his lyrical gaze on a city with such surreal modernity and rampant depravity. In the most notable party scene in Knight of Cups at the home of a Spanish philanderer (played with scene-chewing gusto by Antonio Banderas), the host mutters to Rick, “Treat this world as it deserves. There are no principles, just circumstances. Nobody’s home.” But even in a place as bereft of morality as Los Angeles, the director’s penchant for grace still shines through. In a number of scenes where Rick walks along Skid Row among the scores of homeless people living there—including some with physical deformities—the film imbues them with more humanity than any of Rick’s muses.
To an extent Rick is a product of Terrence Malick’s past. Around the time of his debut feature, Badlands, Malick was also a writer on more commercial fare such as Deadhead Miles and Pocket Money. Furthermore, when we meet Rick’s immediate family, it is revealed that he lost a brother recently, possibly to suicide. This haunts his still-living brother (Wes Bently) to no end as he engages in exceedingly reckless behavior, with “I gotta feel something,” as his rallying cry. And his father (Brian Dennehy) seems to blame himself by the way he lumbers on—as if carrying a great burden. It is believed that Malick’s brother, Larry, also committed suicide, and given his almost monastic way of living, we are left to infer what Malick’s films say about their creator. But make no mistake, Malick remains very much in control here, even if this latest effort proves to be his most perplexing.
Through the film’s desired lack of structure, Knight of Cups most resembles a parable and—in its transient sense of cause and effect—verges on the apocryphal. Malick seems to embrace this idea, overtly referencing John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress and another fable—of a young prince on a quest to recover a priceless pearl, who is deterred by other pleasures. Rick’s father intones in another voiceover, “When the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king. He forgot about the pearl.” Even the film itself is signposted by the names of tarot cards such as “The Hangman,” ”The High Priestess,” and “Judgment” (connecting to the title). The use of such frameworks seems to offer a means to engage the film in a relatively familiar manner, but the implementation of multiple allegorical benchmarks also points to the arbitrary nature of such methods. Somewhere in the development of the moviegoing public’s consciousness, an expectation was set that a film must have a “conclusion” or at least a narrative arc, yet Malick never delivers any sense of closure to these frameworks—nor to Knight of Cups. Critics of the director would argue that his methods are intended to frustrate, but I see them more as a way of humbling the viewer. Immediately after we first hear the story of the wayward prince, Rick is stirred awake by an earthquake. As he makes his way outside in the middle of an aftershock, he drops to his knees and grasps at the ground beneath him.
Knight of Cups—like much of Malick’s other work—seems to be at odds with itself. In trying to make sense of his life, Rick brushes up against many of the themes Malick continues to wrestle with in his projects. The convenient interpretation is to ascribe this existential angst towards the greater utility of finding “joy in the journey,” but the director rebuffs this as well. In the final words we hear from Rick’s father in the film, he bemoans, “You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense, and you find out that you are just as lost as you were before. I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.” This is a fascinating consideration, that one’s “journey” in life is another imperfect construct attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable.
It is not hard to find the Christian overtones here, and it would not be the first film of the director’s where Christianity features so noticeably. But it guides us to a greater truth in Knight of Cups. Near the end of the film, Rick meets with a priest (played by the beloved Armin Mueller-Stahl), and he suggests, “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself, higher than your own will. Takes you from the world, to find what lies beyond it.” Therefore, it is appropriate that Knight of Cups takes us through similar paces, left to wander our own personal wilderness as to what the film means to us, though some will outright reject it as a pompous exercise. But to this writer, Malick remains an essential voice in today’s cinema—the only living director who guides us past the scarring and to the place where wings can grow.