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The way of the pilgrim: further reflections on Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups

Editor’s note: a review of Knight of Cups appeared first in the pages of The Living Church (Hannah Ruth Earl, “Relentlessly Baptismal”).


As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den and I laid me down in that place to sleep. And as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place with his face from his own house, book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.

These are the opening lines to The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. They also happen to be the opening words of Terrence Malick’s recent film, Knight of Cups. For longtime fans of Malick, this comes as no surprise. His best known film, The Tree of Life, opens with a biblical excerpt:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4, 7)

Many people have pointed to Christian references in Malick’s work, with some even calling it “Christian art.” Yet many critics assert that Malick’s films, especially his recent ones, are utterly incomprehensible. What could be the cause of such polarized reactions?

On its surface, Knight of Cups appears to tell the tired story of a decadent man who is lost in the modern world. He is surrounded by beauty and luxury, yet he is unhappy. This tale has been told ad nauseum, but thankfully there are recent examples of it being told well. Paolo Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) is a fine example. Sorrentino avoids the common pitfalls and clichés, precisely because he avoids telling his story in such a way as to present a universal message than can be abstracted from the particulars of his characters’ lives. Yet, while there is certainly some thematic overlap with Sorrentino’s film, I’m fairly confident that Malick is trying to do something rather different.

However, we may betray the very essence of Malick’s films by attempting to nail down their meaning. One of Malick’s greatest strengths lies in his ability to approach cinema in its purest form, namely, as a visual medium. Critics have rightly noted that his three most recent films (The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups) have progressively become less linear, to the point where it is difficult to discern any narrative at all. This progression (or regression, as some would have it) also reflects that his films have become less scripted — Knight of Cups was filmed without any script whatsoever. Even dialogue has eroded to the point of near non-existence. Rather, Malick’s characters now express themselves almost exclusively through voiceover (a technique that is, admittedly, ripe for parody).

Reading through reviews of Malick’s work, it’s nothing less than remarkable just how many ideas people have found packed into his films, and people are certain that the filmmaker intended them to be there — everything from John Paul II’s teachings on marriage and procreation to unfiltered Kierkegaardian existentialism. Some of these theories have merit, some do not. In general, however, I think that too many critics fall into the trap of looking for “symbols” in Malick’s work. There is an understandable temptation, in the absence of conventional storytelling cues, to look for meaning in the potent (and often explicitly Christian) visual representations in these films, but I think that a healthy dose of interpretive restraint is in order.knight_of_cups_header

One can, of course, point out the elements of Knight of Cups easily enough. The protagonist, Rick (Christian Bale), is a Hollywood screenwriter who has lost his passion for writing. He cycles through relationships with women, and we get glimpses (they can hardly be considered more) of six such relationships through a series of vignettes. Rick has a fraught relationship with his father and an even more fraught relationship with his brother. The recent passing of Rick’s mother is a constant source of tension among the three of them. If this sounds like the backdrop of a conventional Hollywood drama, make no mistake: it is not. In fact, it is quite likely that an attentive viewer might sit through the entire film and not catch the protagonist’s name, let alone any other salient “plot points.”

But this is where the polarization begins. Where some critics begin to accuse Malick of self-indulgence or incoherence, others (rightly, in my judgment) observe that this is where he proves himself as one of the true masters of cinema. As the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsksy once wrote:

I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience — and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer. That is the power of cinema: “stars,” story lines and entertainment have nothing to do with it.

My suspicion is that Malick shares these sentiments. Some people are tempted to write off his style as too abstract or postmodern, but I find such criticism lazy. To criticize Malick’s films for their lack of narrative or conventional storytelling devices is simply to reveal our own prejudices about cinema. I’m not suggesting that Malick is immune to criticism, but rather that these specific kinds of criticism miss the mark and preclude cinema’s true aesthetic potential.

People today like to recite platitudes about how we live in a “visual culture.” If anything, Malick has proven these to be false. One would be hard-pressed to find a more “visual” film than Malick’s, yet his films are alien to contemporary Western culture. The modern-day Hollywood blockbuster has taken on a life of its own: “bigger, louder, and bolder” is the motto; bring on a two-hour spectacle of visual stimulation. Yet no one could accuse Malick of making blockbusters. Knight of Cups is an anti-Hollywood film in which most of the action takes place in — you guessed it — Hollywood. I would even go so far as to say that it is a “boring” film, in the sense that it numbs the viewer into experiencing the very ennui to which Rick has fallen victim.

The fragmented nature of Knight of Cups is itself a reflection of the protagonist’s fragmented life, which in turn makes us uncomfortable as we’re confronted with defragmentation in our own lives. As Rick’s father laments,

You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense. Then you find out you’re just as lost as you were before. I suppose that’s what damnation is. The pieces of your life never come together. Just splashed out there. (emphasis added)

It’s the antithesis of what philosopher Julia Annas has described as the task of “making sense of one’s life as a whole,” that is, bringing together our competing desires and interests and integrating them in such as way that our lives have meaning and purpose. This is what Malick’s characters are trying to do, and it’s what we are all trying to do.

Malick’s cinema exudes an earnestness that is jarring to our modern sensibilities. He wants nothing less than for us to become better people through the experience of art. In an early draft of the screenplay for The Tree of Life, Malick writes on the first page: “The ‘I’ who speaks in this story is not the author. Rather, he hopes that you might see yourself in this ‘I’ and understand this story as your own.”

This is the cinematic intention underlying every film Malick has made. In Knight of Cups, Rick is a pilgrim, but really all of Malick’s films are about pilgrimage. The true pilgrim, in fact, is the viewer. Malick demands much from his pilgrim-viewers, but the reward is great. As Tarkovsky beckons us to consider:

The allotted function of art is not, as is often assumed, to put across ideas, to propagate thoughts, to serve as example. The aim of art is to prepare a person for death, to plough and harrow his soul, rendering it capable of turning to good.

The fact that we are so unaccustomed to thinking of art in this way is one of the peccadillos of which we must disabuse ourselves on this pilgrimage. Watching Knight of Cups is a good place to start.

Fr. Stewart Clem serves as assisting priest at St. Paul’s Church (Mishawaka, Indiana) and is a doctoral candidate in moral theology and Christian ethics at the University of Notre Dame. His other Covenant posts may be found here.


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