Never have I seen a movie so full of beautiful imagery and sound, yet so simultaneously empty, unsatisfying, and downright sleazy, as Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. But this is precisely its point. The film’s 118-minute parade of bodies, beaches, and landscapes, accompanied by painfully brief snippets of Grieg, Debussy and Vaughan Williams, provides a glut of beauty that is also a deprivation. Always parts, never a whole. Fragments of pleasure, blips of meaning, a stream of consumables not unlike the disconnected feeds and curated media experiences of our iPhone lives.
One character in the film defines “damnation” as “the pieces of your life never coming together, just splashed out there.” And that is a feeling one might get watching Knight, a film as arduous and uncomfortable to sit through as any I’ve seen in recent years (certainly any starring A-list talent like Christian Bale, Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett). And yet something about it rings hauntingly true to 21st-century man’s navigation of a mediated menagerie, full of garish images, escapist fantasies, pornographic pleasures, and trifling transcendences.
That is, if said 21st-century man makes it all the way through the film. Mid-film walkouts were a well-publicized feature of Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) and will doubtless characterize Knight as well (dozens walked out of the screening I attended). Ben Affleck once said Malick’s To the Wonder (2013) made Life “look like Transformers .” Well, Knight makes Wonder look like Pretty Woman. Since he returned to filmmaking in 1998 with the WWII epic The Thin Red Line (itself avant-garde), Malick’s films have been increasingly flagrant in their disregard for conventional Hollywood storytelling.
They have also been increasingly autobiographical. As Malick, 72, enters old age, he is entering a prolific period (more films in the last five years than in the previous 30) but also a very personal one. Life was Malick (played by Sean Penn) reflecting on his childhood; Wonder was Malick (Ben Affleck) reflecting on his transition back to America after living in France; and Knight is Malick (Christian Bale) reflecting on his complicated relationship with Hollywood. In the latter, Malick’s father (played by Brian Dennehy) and brother (Wes Bentley) loom large, as they did in Life. And in all three of these films, the “Malick” figures (Penn, Affleck, Bale) hardly say a word but do a lot of wandering through plains and deserts, looking and searching as in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life”). Malick is The Moviegoer, and he invites us into his search. His Penn/Affleck/Bale proxies do a lot of searching and seeing in the films, their ponderous gazes often mirroring those of the camera, glancing in a direction that the camera soon follows (or vice versa), taking in beauty but not quite knowing what to do with it.
Whatever else we might say about these recent Malick films, two things are clear: 1) They are deeply personal and subjective explorations, and 2) They are unconcerned with narrative convention or popular “accessibility.”
Discerning Malick’s “Meaning”
This makes it hard to say anything confidently about the “meaning” of a film like Knight, as it is impossible to get inside Malick’s head, especially since he never comments publicly about his films and is stubbornly disengaged from any discourse they spawn. But Knight’s impenetrably subjective posture (basically fragments of image-memories from Malick’s psyche) and resistance to “plot” is in a weird way the key to unlocking its mystery. If the film has a point, it is that “discerning a point” is harder than ever in a world where mediated experiences of “beauty” are more ubiquitous, accessible and customizable than ever, but less and less tied to rubrics of meaning.