Terrence Malick has only made seven films as a director since 1973. Three of those movies have come since 2011. His latest cinematic enigma is “Knight of Cups” featuring Christian Bale as Rick, a promising Hollywood screenwriter who is caught up in the sensual promises of hedonism and the celebrity lifestyle. Rick attends parties at lavish Hollywood mansions, he glances out at the Los Angeles Valley from pristine swimming pools on Mulholland Drive, enjoys ménage a trois, frequents strip clubs, and parties with the upper crust of society. And yet, something is wrong deep inside. Rick wanders the desert alone, offering tortured interior monologues revolving around his deep questions of existence and dissatisfaction with his life.
One of the inspirations for “Knight of Cups” is an ancient Persian text called “A Tale of the Western Exile” which is the story of a Prince who struggles to find an elusive pearl. Malick begins the film quoting from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678 by John Bunyan), a famous Christian allegory revolving around a character named Christian who travels from his hometown, the City of Destruction, to the Celestial City: “As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a den; and I layed me down in the place to sleep: and as I slept, I dreamed a dream.” Weighed down by grave burdens, the character in the book, Christian (and hey, the actor in the film is Christian Bale) has knowledge of his sin which is causing him to sink into hell.
“Knight of Cups” Rick has supposedly the same condition. Rick’s Hollywood agent promises him riches and tells him that he can provide an audience at the table with any other celebrity. At the high class parties he attends, women are referred to as flavors like “strawberry” or “raspberry”, whatever a powerful celebrity may be in the mood for. For a great many in a materialistic culture, this is the pinnacle definition of success. Rick exclaims, through narration, that he needs to go “higher”.
Rick is questioning this version of fleeting “success”. His brother committed suicide in the past, an act that has strained relationships with his dad and brother. Relationships with women come and go but nothing is meaningful. A voiceover narration quote from a character suggests that “damnation” is “the pieces of your life never coming together, just splashed out there.”
Sequences of the film contrast the Hollywood life of Rick to that of his brother, Barry (played by Wes Bentley). Sprawling Hollywood mansions are juxtaposed with images of poverty, down-and-out people who commune where Barry lives. Barry is, I think, a squatter in an otherwise vacant downtown building on one of the floors. He is filled with rage and, if I’m understanding correctly, blames his father Joseph (played by Brian Dennehy). Cherry Jones is the boy’s mother, Ruth, who seems to avoid conflict and looks, at times, to be depressingly reflective of what has become of her family.
The protagonist, of course, remains Rick and the movie is about his search for (in Malickian terms) transcendent meaning. He attends tarot card readings and there are chapters (or sections) of the film built around the names of tarot cards (“The Moon”, “The Hanged Man”, “The Hermit”, “Judgment”, etc). Even the film’s title “Knight of Cups” is a reference to a card in a tarot deck. It signifies a person who is the bringer of ideas or opportunities. Reversed though, the card represents fraud, trickery and false promises.
As one makes their way through this movie, there will be the inevitable “what does this all mean?” Malick has a film-making style all his own. There is no one in the history of cinema who makes films, stylistically, like he does. They can be described as a kind of “stream of consciousness” viewing where linear plots and even character development (to some extents) are completely jettisoned for sequencing images together in order to tell a loose story and evoke emotions related to it.
Matt Zoller Seitz, a reviewer for Rogerebert.com, loved the film but struggled in his review to find a clear meaning. However, he offered this take: “Strange as this might sound, one of the key moments in ‘Knight of Cups’ is a lyrical interlude cutting together slow-motion shots of dogs diving into swimming pools and trying to grasp a floating tennis ball in their jaws. They never succeed. It’s a comical image, and it’s of a piece with shots and moments strewn throughout ‘Knight of Cups’ that are at least partly about dissatisfaction and frustration; interruption; the inability to concentrate, follow through, finish.”
Christianity Today’s Brett McCracken offered a lukewarm review and tried to comment on the overall meaning: “Hollywood is a dream factory, a purveyor of fantasies and searches for holy grails (or mystical ‘pearls’). Southern California’s mythic status as the place where dreams come true, where the sun never sets, reinforces the mystique. But the images of Hollywood and our broader media environment deceive and disappoint when they are not icons pointing beyond themselves but idols to be worshiped in themselves. And this is the purgatory Rick finds himself in. He’s in a dream world, half asleep, making no progress on his spiritual quest because the beauty that should be pointing him higher is instead luring him deeper into idolatry. He’s missing the truth because, as C. S. Lewis might say, he’s far too easily pleased. As one muse in the film tells Rick: ‘You don’t want love, you want a love experience.’ And as another tells him: ‘Dreams are nice, but you can’t live in them.'”
That “Knight of Cups” is a repudiation of the Hollywood machine seems to be a given. The project may feed into Malick’s own personal thoughts on the matter as a man who genuinely seems to want nothing to do with fame and celebrity in his real life. Reportedly, Malick lives near Austin, Texas and never attends red carpet premiers or gives interviews about his films. When “Tree of Life” (I reviewed that movie here) was nominated for best picture and best director at the Academy Awards in 2012, Malick was a no-show at the ceremony. The media calls him a “hermit” but really, that is just a slander for someone who refuses to play by the presses rules.
The only interview I could find with Malick in a search online comes from 2007. The blogger claims that Malick was talked into an interview at the Rome Film Festival but only on the condition that he not discuss any of his movies. He would, however, talk about some of his favorite Italian films.
The relevant note to take away from that blog is the subject of innocence. “A unifying theme begins to emerge with clarity: Terrence Malick loves innocence and anything that celebrates it. Innocence is a theme that Malick will continue to mention repeatedly in the interview.” As a topic, “innocence” may well be at the heart of “Knight of Cups” but inverted from the origination of the story. The man, Rick, starts out as not guilty and perhaps (depending on one’s interpretation) longs to be (or feel) innocent again.
I stated the movie primarily takes place in Los Angeles but there are scenes in Las Vegas as well. A character on the strip of Vegas, with the Luxor pyramid casino looming in the background, tells Rick that he believes in darkness and light. It’s just that he loves the pleasures that the darkness brings but, indeed, for someone to acknowledge they are in darkness is directly implying that they also believe in light.
SPOILERS: Toward the end of the film (in or near the final chapter), Joseph admits he has not been a perfect father. He falls to his knees and begs God for mercy. There is a scene that shows the father washing blood off his hands into a sink. Meanwhile, Rick stands before a priest (atleast we are led to believe it is Rick) that suffering is a gift from God, not a curse, because suffering draws us closer to Him. Suffering does not mean that God doesn’t love us. “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself,” says the minister played by Armin Mueller-Stahl. From this spiritual instruction, Rick finds love with Isabel (played by Isabel Lucas) and based on the images, they settle down and even have a child together.
Taking these revelations and applying them to the rest of the film may give us a glimpse of what Malick is communicating. The reviewer Seitz calls this Malick’s “bleakest film” but I’m not so sure given where the movie ends up. I mentioned that the film is divided into chapters based on tarot cards. The last chapter is not based on a tarot card though. Its title is “freedom”.