The Knight's Dark Night
The opening words are more than strange, especially in an American film, even if it were of the come-to-Jesus sort. Eerie and archaic, and from, of all places, the beginning of John Bunyan's cranky Puritan allegory The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). They could as well, though, and perhaps more aptly, come from the first lines of Dante's Divine Comedy, where the narrator finds himself in midlife grievously "astray in a dark wood … in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled" (Seamus Heaney, trans.). Terrence Malick's Knight of Cups has neither Bunyan's pilgrim Christian astray and beset in England, nor Dante in the brambles of Tuscany, but instead hugely successful screenwriter Rick (another Christian, as in Bale) lost in the sunny wilds of garish, star-drenched Hollywood. Apparently settings and eras change but not the human circumstance. Midway in his life's journey, Rick has it all: fame, money, women, and power, yet with all of this he simply drifts, and drifts, aimless and empty, from party to party, woman to woman, and concrete LA to stark desert, haunted all the while by one dead brother, another quite alive and volatile (Wes Bentley), and a roiling, guilt-sodden father fixed on figuring everything out (Brian Dennehy). Loss and loss, and then some. And this Rick fellow writes comedy?
Here's the rub: most reviewers will tell you it's Malick's filmmaking that has gotten lost. In their account, Malick has ventured far into the netherlands of artiness and obscurity, and the result is self-indulgent mush. Apparently, while appealing up-front, as in trailers, with ample sugar on top (all those AAA-list stars eager to work with Malick), the films have become increasingly shapeless, quirky, and close to inert. Indeed, with Knight of Cups, even one-time enthusiasts have gone full-scale negative. The New York Times' A. O. Scott, perhaps the country's best film critic, praised Malick's The Tree of Life (2011) with a lavish dose of "astonishment and admiration," placing Malick's unconventional tale in the ranks of Whitman and Melville. With Knight, quite the opposite: Scott sees the film as tired, "a lukewarm bath of male self-pity" (ouch) and, worse yet, "exploitative" of the "nameless, voiceless, topless women" whose "lithe bodies" fill the screen.
You'll have to decide for yourself, if you care one way or the other. To this viewer, it seems pretty obvious that in Knight of Cups Malick has very purposefully tried to push beyond the limits of "usual" cinema: few words, very few, and those usually in voiceover, and as well fewer incidents or events, and those, such as they are, scrambled in time and place. In place of the "usuals," Malick supplies images, and more images, an impatient, ceaseless flow.
And this new film is only the latest episode in Malick's long push to stretch the limits of cinema. Ever since his return to filmmaking in 1998, after a mysterious twenty-year hiatus, the mega-auteur has steadily tracked ever farther away from the medium's narrative conventions, most especially the expectation of a tidy causality to events, experience, and knowledge. Well, life itself, and coming to know something about life, sure aren't that way, though perhaps contours and directions do emerge from within the thicket. Instead, in the place of tidy causality come those cascades of images and sounds—fleeting, jammed, askew, recurring, meditative, leaping, re-cycling. All approach the way the self actually meets and experiences the world and the self's own consciousness. It seems as if Malick seeks to transport film to a zone that better fathoms the mysteries of being in the world—to some form more like symphony, gallery, poem, or, for that matter, psalm—all the while retaining and in fact savoring the primal power of the moving image. If these assorted non-filmic aesthetic forays all yield, in repeated attention, more and more as the art piece shows more of itself, seeping inward, mysteriously occupying and molding the self in ways other than ratiocination and calculation, then why not also with film ("sculpting in time," as Tarkovsky put it)? See the film till the film sees you, disclosing world and self to self? Why not know film as one knows a poem or a sonata, allowing all the registers of perception to engage being and knowing?
The aim here, then, is not artiness, though Malick can do that aplenty if he wishes; rather, he seems intent on more fully encompassing and conveying how people actually experience their own lives, particularly the deeper ranges of affect in knowing self, others, and materiality, most notably variables of love, longing, pleasure, beauty, enmity, sorrow, guilt, anger, and so on. Alas, how then does one navigate a perpetual contest of unwieldy inner currents? Rationality mixes in, to be sure, as we try to choose and uncipher personal being, but finally it plays but a small part in configuring being in the self and the world, swallowed as it is by psycho-spiritual ferment. Very clearly, these subjective interior registers are not easily conveyed in a stalwartly empirical medium whose chief appeal lies in visual realism and linear storytelling. In Knight of Cups, it is one thing to show that Rick is lost; that is not hard to do. It is quite another to convey Rick's own sense of his lostness, what it is like deep-down—the whole gestalt, mind, heart and soul—to be empty, aimless, and generally estranged from all and everything. It is no wonder, then, that Rick regularly flees to blank stretches of desert and beach, settings that that abound in Malick's recent films.
In the end, Malick has sought not just to watch the self in motion but to catch the self's experience of itself, or more accurately, Malick being Malick, the soul's experience of the self. The ambient swirl of consciousness, alighting upon 50 (or 500) fragments of being in as many minutes, amid the self's endless refraction of memory and affect, the press of the now. That goes after a different kind of realism. For the wondering and wandering self, it is no small task to meaningfully assemble wholeness from random shards and currents of being amid loss and longing—or delight and fullness, as with Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) in The Tree of Life or Rick's marriage to estranged Nancy, briefly but luminously played by Cate Blanchett.
Such is the constant mystery of personhood—bane, radiance, or uneasy admixture thereof. Things quickly get very complicated. Malick catches Rick on the wing, as the fellow wanders about trying to find what he himself really wants from being alive. In doing so, Malick tries to stretch the kinds of truth the screen can tell about what it is like to live in a human skin, here striving, to display interiority, to bring the "inside" out.
For Rick perhaps the problem is memory. Co-opted, lost in the thicket, he "can't remember the man I wanted to be." Beguiled by the fleshpots of Hollywood, as one temptress tells him, "Real life is hard to find," and indeed, in the words of another, he's more interested in the fleeting experience of love than actual love. Why else leave Nancy, the physician wife who gently ministers to the maimed and the poor and who gave him "peace, mercy, love"? Rick has fatally taken Hollywood at its word and has thus tethered himself to a dead-end, sensate ethos, save for his nagging sense that, as the narrator invokes Plato, "Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven."
And yet a tidy summation of this sort not only makes the "story" trite but misconstrues what Malick is after. What happens to Rick is not the most important question; rather it is the means by which he arrives there. ("In order to arrive where you are not you must go by the way in which you are not," says Eliot.) Rather, Malick asks viewers to shift their expectations toward a different mode of apprehending film and, for that matter, life itself. From tidy linear causalities of action and affect, he pushes toward a drama of "deep subjectivity," for lack of a better term, a staging of being itself, the how and why of how inmost selves actually function and thirst. For this Malick attempts to move viewers from observation to immersion so to catch the soul in motion, so to speak. Images and motifs of images, making their own kind of music, and music itself, and abundant sounds of waves and wind—all swirl together to craft a new sort of cinema. And lo, done well, "you are the music while the music lasts," again as says Eliot.
So in viewing Knight of Cups, if you undertake that journey, let the film do its work, take you where it will. Shed along-the-way analysis, but enter the film and let it carry you. Who knows where you might end up? An initial go at this "disarmed" posture felt like a shoe on the wrong foot, at first, but afterward, in a mall parking lot, amid quiet birdsong in the glowing dusk of a spring evening, all seemed briefly transfigured, suffused with an altogether different sort of radiance. At the very end of the film Rick drives through a long tunnel to see at its end, at last, bright light, or Light. In a long midlife poetic self-appraisal, Midpoint (1969), John Updike suggested that "deepest in the thicket, thorns spell a word." Or Word. So goes Mystery.
Roy Anker is the author of several books on film, including Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies (Eerdmans).
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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