Woah. That’s really the only word that comes to swirling mind as I try to describe “Knight of Cups,” the latest offering from spiritually profound director Terrence Malick. This subversive rarity ends conventional, story-driven movies. It ends Christian Bale. It ends Cate Blanchett. It ends star-power. It ends Los Angeles. It ends Malick. It ends American cinema. It ends cinema. It ends the tangible world. In one fell swoop, it begins moviemaking all over again. If we jive with Malick’s jig, we are born again in another, more mysterious world — a world defined by its disciplined zaniness, its disjointed cohesion. “Knight of Cups,” an unclassifiable “object,” adds one more planet to the ever-expanding space-time-funk of the Malick-y Way.
I must clarify what “Knight of Cups” is not. It is not a normal “movie.” There is no plot. There are no characters. There is a Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale). There are a slew of beautiful women in his life (Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Imogen Poots). Each remains elusive to the lost writer. Each melts into the next. There is a brother who has committed suicide and a father who has failed both sons. There are pool orgies, beach trips, desert sojourns. The Star Gate of Kubrick’s “2001” is reimagined as rides along the prismatic freeways of grimy Los Angeles. The screenwriter, a hollow wretch who wishes to become a real person, grapples with his identity, his passion for film, and his place in the world. He is unable to love. He must go on a spiritual journey within himself to save himself.
I must now clarify what “Knight of Cups” is. It is a new chapter in the continuing saga of Terrence Malick (the closest thing we have to an American Jean-Luc Godard). Like Athena sprung from Zeus’s head, Malick emerged fully formed in the early-to-mid ’70s with such lyrical masterpieces as “Badlands” (about a couple’s kill-spree across ’50s Midwest America) and “Days of Heaven” (about a little girl’s memory of farm-love in 1916 Texas). Then, for several decades, between 1978 and 1998, Malick didn’t make a single movie. He was reading, metamorphosing, living life. Then, with “The Thin Red Line” in ’98 and “The New World” in ’05, he emerged from his cocoon a more assured and pensive figure than before.
Drowning himself in his own childhood, he has made three masterpieces in the 2010s. “The Tree of Life” was his Big Bang. It was a restart for cinema. It captured, with unbridled imagination, the immediate seconds of flickering life in the Malickverse. His films thereafter were jagged rocks carved from the primordial soup of “Tree of Life.” Humans would call such rocks “planets” (or, in Malick’s case, “movies”). A Malick planet — from the homespun Mars folksiness of “Days of Heaven” to the barren, Pluto-like desolation of “Knight of Cups” — is a Rorschach enigma onto which viewers can project their own beliefs, anxieties and feelings. These icy-impenetrable rocks can mean everything and anything. Looking up to the high Hollywood heavens, we see what we want to see. But in the end, these films remain as they were formed: mysteries of science and spirituality. These essentially absurdist “objects” resist easy interpretation, but that doesn’t stop us from interpreting them anyway. Their dreamlike sheaths, in the spirit of the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, collapse conscious reality into a half-woke-half-dreamt haze.
Zhuangzi is but one of the dense references “Knight of Cups” makes. Its philosophical rhetoric also draws upon Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Barthes, St. Thomas of Aquinas and the doubts of Camus. Malick’s Christianity, Taoism and Nihilism are waves breaking upon the same shores. His cinematic maturity culls from Tati, Sturges, Varda, Brakhage, Lester, Tashlin, Altman and, of course, Godard. New Hollywood, French New Wave and 2010s capitalism-is-awesome movies mesh and melt. Knowledge of this web of connections is not necessary to appreciate the finished product, but it’s immensely helpful to see at what exactly Malick is aiming.
Like Godard’s “Weekend,” Malick says goodbye to language, speaking a foreign, futuristic tongue. It’s been 100 years since D.W. Griffith’s twin epics “Birth of a Nation” and “Intolerance” hit theaters and perfected cinematic language in the feature. Now Malick, torpedoing the sturdy-safe institution of American narrative cinema, situates himself at the beginning of a new, nebulous era of cinematic expression. From the chaos of this clash spills out shards and bits, shots and moods from a myriad of American movies. Like Vine-sized videos, these memory-shorts form an imperfect mosaic that captures the multitudinous everything-ness of the universe.
“Knight of Cups” is a densely-calculated attack on the way we consume movies. Its air of pretension is merely an illusion. Only a seasoned veteran like Malick could make this type of free-form experimental piece. He’s been working towards “Knight of Cups” all his life. It’s amazing that people talk of Malick scurrying further and further away from reality. In fact, Malick has adopted the opposite trajectory. By burrowing himself in his own personal hang-ups (the suicide of his brother, his Hollywood success in the ‘70s, his religious doubts), he actually taps into a peculiar universality mired in the experience of all people.
It is not an easy film to digest on first viewing. Many will be left utterly baffled. Some will walk out from the theater. After the movie, I asked a middle-aged couple their thoughts. They simply shook their heads in solemn silence and said, “It’s shit.” These are reasonable reactions. Do not expect a plot. Do not expect easy clarity. Do not expect profound performances. Do not expect to understand everything. You will be driven mad if you do. Just let the images flow in front of you. Inject your self and your life into the filmic ether. If you do, you’ll come out inspired and full of the love that Malick wishes to share with the world. Like life, “Knight of Cups” is frustrating yet fulfilling.
Contact Carlos Valladares at firstname.lastname@example.org.