Relentlessly Baptismal

Knight of Cups
Dogwood Films and Waypoint Entertainment
Directed by Terrence Malick

Review by Hannah Ruth Earl

The mythos of a California setting is culture-worn and well trod. Waves and palm trees serve as harbingers of a particularly American form of self-direction via self-destruction. In Knight of Cups, director Terrence Malick subverts this popular narrative of personal creation, rebuking the notion that we craft our spiritual selves.

The film follows Rick (Christian Bale), a lauded Los Angeles screenwriter who retreads the trespasses of his personal life. Episodic in structure, the plot shifts fluidly in examination of one successive relationship to the next: prostitute to fortune-teller, brother to colleague, father to friend, spouse to mistress. Expressly framed as a pilgrim, Rick is prodded toward resolution of his restlessness.

Knight of Cups meditates on the limits of human agency in the face of divine action. Most riveting is the intensity of spiritual themes, the dramatic use of which proves unparalleled in recent Hollywood storytelling. Malick wisely rejects the modern trope of the personal as political; his turn to the transcendent distinguishes Knight of Cups from the trend of self-indulgence in today’s introspective films. Each character vignette invites the protagonist to community; each chapter compels him to engage another as both body and soul. Rick fails, yet entreats mercy; he falters, but does not despair. Few films broach the spiritual component of redemption, and fewer still this visceral longing for restoration.

Malick has crafted not an epic but an intentional parable. His orthodox tale is at once an indictment of autonomy and an apology for reconciliation. Knight of Cups ties Rick’s end to the good of those around him. While it offers one man’s return to humanity, the film is hardly subtle in its insistence that Rick is pursued by divine clemency. Malick presents a harrowing dramatization of an active God.

Knight of Cups is masterful filmmaking, a grace and glory of contemporary art. By traditional measures, the script is sparing in its embellishment of Rick’s odyssey. The film’s abrasive visual style augments Malick’s screenplay of rich simplicity as a portrait of Rick’s wandering from spiritual detachment into light and life. Relentlessly baptismal, Knight of Cups bears joyful witness to the possibility and the truth of transformation.

Hannah Ruth Earl, a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School, is an associate at the Moving Picture Institute.

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