Reviews

Knight of Cups and the Spirituality of Sleaze

In his seventh film, Terrence Malick explores spiritual struggle amidst the stargazing seductions of the City of Angels.
Knight of Cups and the Spirituality of Sleaze
Image: Dogwood Films

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.

The resulting experience of life (the “damnation” of disconnected, episodic existence) is essentially the experience of Bale’s “Rick” in Knight. Inspired by an ancient Persian text (“The Story of the Western Exile”) about a Prodigal Son–style prince on a quest to find an elusive pearl, Knight is two hours of Malick wandering, philandering, and suffering his way through the spiritual and physical deserts of Los Angeles.

This wayward prince is some sort of Hollywood bigshot, and the world is his oyster. But will he find the pearl? He looks for it everywhere. He searches for it in spiritual mysticism, variously attending tarot readings and Zen spaces in Japanese rock gardens. He searches for it in contemporary art (visiting LACMA) in suffering (Skid Row), in pool parties at The Standard. And most vividly, he searches for it in women. A lot of them.

These women pop in and out of Rick’s life (and bedroom) throughout the film, objects of his “search” but really just items for his consumption. Rick seems to agree with Antonio Banderas, who says at a party: “Sometimes you want raspberry, then after a while you want some strawberry.” Fickle tastes, endless choice: a recipe for never-satisfied appetites.

Malick’s portrayal of women in Knight is controversial for good reason. His notorious tendencies to relegate women in his films to whispering waifs, cartwheeling pixies, and ethereal angel-muses are taken to the extreme in Knight. Frequently nude or scantily clad, the impressive roster of actresses in Knight function as little more than fragile beauties, icons of seduction and HD eye candy (with the possible exception of Cate Blanchett, whose short time on screen is more substantive than the rest).

This aspect of Knight, taken at face value, is almost enough for me to not recommend the film. The effect of the repetitive, intentionally indistinguishable sequence of Rick’s liaisons with women (certain shots, on beaches or in convertibles, are repeated with multiple women) is numbing, grotesque, squirm-inducing. Some are actresses, some strippers, some models. By the fifth or sixth of them, they start to blur together. The audience becomes increasingly uncomfortable. Beauty shouldn’t be this sleazy, this empty, to the point that we want to slink in our seats, look away, or walk out. Where is the grandiose catharsis that the trailer suggested?

But this is where Malick’s critique of Hollywood, as a sort of stand-in for the larger spiritual “searches” of mankind, comes into focus. 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.” For Rick (and presumably for Malick, who hates and avoids the Hollywood lifestyle), the black hole inertia of L.A.’s dreamscape makes an already difficult spiritual pilgrimage all the harder.

How a Pilgrim Makes Progress

Each of Malick’s seven films is about spiritual pilgrimage in some sense: a character living in some sort of Eden-like Paradise, then losing it (usually because of their own sin or the systemic brokenness of man), then trying to recover it again. Malick’s The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life are the most overt in this structure. The biblical image of a “tree of life” is, after all, the symbol for Paradise (Genesis 2) and Paradise restored (Revelation 22). But Knight is perhaps the most clear about the struggle of a faith pilgrimage.

The film opens with audio excerpts from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, the story of a man named Christian who, like Rick, is on a spiritual search amidst ample temptations (was Christian Bale cast for his first name?). Like all of Malick’s films, Knight explores the journey from a City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Sometimes this takes the shape of contrasting industry and nature, cityscapes and landscapes. In Knight’s case, it often literally showcases the contrast between hedonistic Hollywood parties with various tempters and churches with compassionate priests (played here by Armin Mueller-Stahl). The goal of the pilgrimage is clear (“find your way from darkness to light”) even if the means are not.

What makes Rick’s pilgrimage such a struggle is that L.A. is as deceptively enlightening as it is overtly corrosive. It’s a place as full of beauty, epiphany, and truth as it is with ugliness, despair, and lies. Malick’s camera takes full survey of it, from the beauty of cactus gardens to the ugliness (or is it?) of Skid Row, from Hollywood Hills vistas to the windmills of Palm Springs. As a Southland resident, I can say that Knight captures well the complexity of L.A., a city at once intoxicating and abrasive, on the brink of greatness (fame is just one breakout movie away!) and on the brink of disaster (as in the earthquake that figures prominently early in Knight).

How does the pilgrim make progress in such an environment? There are real opportunities for growth, but there are also many relapse-sparking landmines. L.A. is a place of perpetual newness, a city that celebrates fresh starts and the eternal availability of new beginnings. Note the final word of the film: “Begin.”

L.A. is the “City of Angels,” an ironic name for a metropolis with so unholy a reputation. But in a real sense, L.A. is ground zero for the “now and not yet” tension of Paradise lost-but-longed-for. Fallen angels abound, but the city still dreams. Everywhere there are signs of the fall but vestiges of the garden. In Knight, Malick pays special attention to the purifying water of swimming pools and oceans, evoking the baptismal motif so common in his films. We hear in voiceover: “Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven.” We see costumed angels at parties or in kitschy Romanesque angel statues in Las Vegas. The film is haunted by angels, visible and invisible guides for the journey. Is Rick entertaining angels unaware in his dalliances with women? Perhaps. He’s certainly not picking up their cues if they are pointing in the direction of the light.

And here might be the key to what Rick, or any pilgrim, ultimately needs in order to grow: a rehabilitation of the senses, a more attentive posture to the world. For if we are ogling much but seeing little, then we will miss the signs that are everywhere around us. We’ll be doomed to the unsatisfying cycle of consumerism. Perhaps the “damnation” of “the pieces of your life never coming together” is not so much a product of one’s fragmented life as it is not having eyes to see the connections. It’s why Brad Pitt’s character laments missing “the glory all around us” at the end of Life: “I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory.”

When we only have utilitarian eyes to see things that bring us pleasure (“using” rather than “receiving” the world, as C. S. Lewis might say), we are doomed to spiritual blindness. This is the problem of the Hollywood culture Malick critiques: its conceptions of beauty are too short-sighted; its manner of seeing too preoccupied with pleasure and celebrity to notice the glory.

This is certainly evident in Malick’s larger body of work. In his notorious habit of hiring A-list actors for his films but then leaving them largely dialogue-less (or absent altogether) in the final cut, Malick is confronting the priorities of Hollywood’s cult of celebrity, which since the studio era has ordered the audience’s gaze mostly around “star power.”

In both the way he lives (as a recluse in Texas who never engages in press junkets, TV appearances, or red carpets) and the way he makes movies, Malick reverses this. He dares the audience to look beyond the beautiful bodies and magnetic charisma of the “stars” and instead to see the beauty around the periphery: the animals, the plants normally relegated to the background, the unknown actor, those with disabled and deformed bodies (see particularly Wonder), every leaf and every ray of God’s light. This is frustrating for some actors who expect that working with a “prestige” director like Malick will be a boon to their ego. Adrien Brody famously thought his three months of intense shooting on Line would result in a starring role, only to find out at the premiere that his part had been reduced to a single line of dialogue. Alligators, trees, and tropical birds had more screen time than Brody, George Clooney, and John Travolta in that film.

It’s also distasteful for many audiences because it’s the opposite of what filmgoing is typically like for them (hence the walkout phenomenon). Conventional moviegoing is an experience of escape, not confrontation. Narratives and plots are expected to guide us easily through predictable paths, through conflicts and then to resolution. Movies rarely require us to ponder or process much after we leave the theater. But in our impatient culture of instant-everything, Malick says slow down. When the world beckons us to opine, Malick says observe. Take time to wrestle, to ruminate. That so many people don’t even have the patience to sit all the way through his films is precisely the problem.

The Long View

I’m a huge Malick fan and have written more about his films than any other topic, and yet when I saw Knight, I had no idea what to say about it. Aside from my few half-baked ideas and disconnected observations, the car ride home with my wife was mostly quiet. I didn’t tweet my thoughts, and I didn’t publish a hot take. I started writing this article 10 days after I saw the film, admittedly a rare luxury in the fast-turnaround world of film criticism. It was much better this way. My hot-take evaluation of the film would have looked nothing like this article, and this article will bear faint resemblance to the essay I’ll write about the film in a decade.

This is what Malick teaches us: we need the long view. The bigger picture. In how we see the world and how we understand our own journeys, we need patience and perspective. We can’t make sense of any of it piecemeal, processing our lives in this world as we would process a computer screen with 14 Chrome tabs open or a social media feed where news about beheadings and refugees are sandwiched between duckface selfies and Buzzfeed quizzes. This is why Rick’s progress is so stunted in the chaos of Hollywood, and it’s why Jack’s epiphany in Life only comes after he’s been able to understand the many bits and pieces of his Texas childhood in the context of something bigger than himself (e.g., the film’s “creation of the universe” sequence). As Bunyan writes in Pilgrim’s Progress, “It is always hard to see the purpose in wilderness wanderings until after they are over.”

A pilgrim makes progress by seeing the Image behind the images of our world; by seeing in the framed painting, photograph, or cinematic shot not a closed-off pleasantry but an invitation to explore what lies behind and beyond, outside the frame. Rather than something that restricts what can be seen, film theorist André Bazin compared the cinematic “shot” to a framed window that hints at a vast reality outside of view. Through its suggestion of off-screen space, the film image in Bazin’s view was about being “part of something prolonged indefinitely into the universe.”

In our world today, characterized more and more by images, screens, boxes, and other “framed” realities, this posture of openness and exploration is crucial. Within the “immanent frames” of this secular age, where the buffered self is increasingly closed off to frontiers of transcendence and unifying principles, the fragmentary “damnation” of Knight may be a common lot. But it doesn’t have to be. There is another option to aid us in our pilgrimage from darkness to light, but it requires another way of seeing the world. It’s a gaze that resists the urge to turn images into idols and pretty things into porn. Instead, it glimpses grace amidst the grime, the Image of God in the ghastliest of go-go dancers. It sees a Spirit hovering over Skid Row, the Sunset Strip, and all the other sleazy streets of this Paradise lost.

Brett McCracken is a Los Angeles–based writer and journalist, and author of the books Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide (Baker 2010) and Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty (Baker 2013). You can follow him @brettmccracken or at brettmccracken.com.

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Knight of Cups and the Spirituality of Sleaze