Since 2011's Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s movies have had less and less use for narrative convention. Instead of tight, well-told stories, his movies give us sets of impressions: the grandeur of nature, the beauty of women, the soul’s longing for love. With the release of Knight of Cups, impatient critics have begun to wonder what he is up to. Maybe these movies are just noodling explorations of hopelessly abstract questions, late-night bull sessions committed to film.
Not at all. As Dawn LaValle and William Randolph Brafford have argued, these are films with a point. Man must be willing to commit to love and open himself to new life. More specifically, he must cleave to a woman and be ready to have a child. The heroes in Knight of Cups and the preceding film, To the Wonder, stand beside fences, gaze through plate glass. They are divided by these barriers from nature and from others. The image becomes especially personal when the men refuse to have children. Contraceptive barriers choke off life, close hearts to love.
Knight of Cups not only states this truth, it dramatizes our resistance to it. Here we see the logic of its loosey-goosey form. The hero’s inability to commit makes his life a succession of events rather than a story. Women come and go. Every potential protagonist turns out to be another extra. In such a life, there can be no rising action, climax, and denouement. The film opens with a quotation of Pilgrim’s Progress, but unlike Bunyan’s Christian, the hero is going nowhere. He says: “I spent thirty years not living life, but ruining it for myself and others . . . All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t even know.” The hero has forgotten his story (we are told that he is a prince, sent by a king, to find a great pearl…but that he has fallen asleep). Knight of Cups shows the struggle to remember, to regain the narrative for life. Its final word is “begin.” At last, the hero is ready to live.
I cannot understand the incomprehension with which critics have greeted Knight of Cups. When I watch it, I see my life and that of my peers. Its realism stings. Yet someone like A.O. Scott, a fan of Tree of Life, dismisses it as merely “poetic.” His review ends with the claim that it is “hard not to suspect that what is being solicited is not your empathy but your envy.” Could there be a more severe misreading? The hero of Knight of Cups is a pitiful character—all the more so because he squanders his privilege. How A.O. Scott missed that while catching his name (Rick, apparently—I don’t remember it being spoken) is beyond me. Malick may not be to everyone’s taste, but a fan of Tree of Life should be able to recognize that Knight of Cups is a masterpiece, Malick’s greatest and most moving film. Perhaps we don’t want to understand Knight of Cups because it asks us to understand something uncomfortable about ourselves. It wants us to see our lives for what they are, so that we might also glimpse what they could be.
Matthew Schmitz is literary editor of First Things.