Terrence Malick has baffled many of the film critics who once championed him. His detractors call his latest film, Knight of Cups, an “indecipherable mess” or “hard to parse.” A.O. Scott of the New York Times admired Malick’s Tree of Life, but now sounds as if he feels betrayed: “The deployment of beauty strikes me as more evasive than evocative.” Even Malick’s admirers find him opaque. Matt Zoller Seitz, the generally perceptive editor of RogerEbert.com, writes that “the film seems to be fighting a losing battle to make sense of itself, to coalesce into a statement, to not fade away.” Moira MacDonald of the Seattle Times found the images “exquisite,” but couldn’t discern “a point to it all.”
There’s no arguing with taste, and Malick’s last few movies have been unusual, to say the least. He films a great deal of plot, then cuts it away in the editing room until all that’s left is a dense web of beautiful, highly symbolic moments. Sometimes we’ll see a famous face in the corner of a shot and wonder about which pieces of the story we’re missing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s literal and what’s a memory or a dream. But to say Knight of Cups is formless is to miss its moral vision, which, like his last film, is in the service of what Pope John Paul II called “the culture of life”: a culture that includes, cares for, and protects the full span of human life, from conception to death. The family open to receiving new life stands at its center.
Knight of Cups opens with text from The Pilgrim’s Progress and scenes of its main character wandering in a desert. What follows will concern a pilgrimage. Like John Bunyan’s Christian, the main character of this film, who I’ll call the Knight, passes through a strange and dangerous landscape, meeting friends and guides as well as enemies and tempters. His journey takes him through the Los Angeles of the entertainment industry, with its lights, drinks, drugs, parties, and palm trees. The Knight’s brother and father visit him at intervals throughout the film. Other characters are present only in episodes. There are six women who appear in various relationships to the Knight: a young actress, a mournful ex-wife, a serene model, a lively stripper, a married woman, and an angelic blonde.
What might be called a symbolic geography is laid out through certain images that recur in patterns. Whenever the Knight has been jolted out of his complacency, perhaps by an earthquake or by the end of a relationship, we see him wandering in the desert. When the Knight is falling in love, or opening himself to love, he goes to the ocean. So we have a desert, and an ocean, and between them, The City, where the Knight experiences ambition, confusion, fear, and desire. The deeper the Knight’s love for a woman, the closer they get to the water. The Knight stands at the shore with his ex-wife but does not step into the surf, just as he couldn’t fully step into their marriage. The Knight and the stripper-temptress, who entrances him without reaching his soul, just stay on the boardwalk and shop for sunglasses.
What is this love that the ocean represents? It is a love that calls us out of ourselves. To fall in love is to have the soul awakened. Yet the Knight has rejected this love, and lives his life in alienation. The sign of his fear of love is a refusal to have children. “Are you sorry we didn’t have babies?” the ex-wife asks, early in the film. Later, the Knight walks into a restaurant and notices someone watching a sonogram video on a laptop. Just after that, the Knight’s mother makes a brief appearance, standing peacefully in the surf, she murmurs in voiceover “I hope you have children.” These are not just the words of a mother eager for grandchildren. She wants her son to know what it’s like to love as a parent does. In such moments, the film expresses its deep conviction: love between a man and a woman is not fully itself until it is open to family life.
As the film approaches its climax, this theme becomes dominant. In a segment with the Tarot-card title “Death,” the Knight begins a new love affair, this time with a married woman. She tells the Knight that she doesn’t feel guilty about breaking her vows, for her vows only come from the love behind them. Has the Knight finally found what he has been searching for? When the pair goes to the ocean, they dive into the breaking waves. They walk out along a pier, and the Knight leaps from a ledge into the water, uninhibited and seemingly free. They yearn to be married: when the woman walks by a shop, she gazes longingly at a wedding dress. But heartbreak comes for them at a beach house, where the woman reveals that she had become pregnant without knowing if the father was her husband or the Knight. It’s implied that she aborted the child. “I forget about it for a few minutes, and then I remember,” she says, weeping. The relationship ends. There is a shot of the empty pier on the empty beach, and the Knight’s whispered words: “Forgive me.”
Sometime after this, as the Knight reconciles with his father, we hear a voice reciting Psalm 51, which is associated in Scripture with King David after his time with Bathsheba: “have mercy on me, according to your unfailing love.” With this repentance, the Knight has passed his final trial. To this point in the film, the beaches have all been empty, or nearly so, but now there’s a long shot of an oceanside full of families, children, light, and laughter. The final title card of the film is “Freedom.” Knight of Cups ends with rising music and scenes of the Knight with a graceful, angelic woman and a crawling baby in a garden. This woman, unlike the others, is seen only fleetingly, but we do hear her praying Psalm 139 (“the darkness is not dark to you”). How did the Knight meet this woman? What is their life together like? We don’t know — but then again, Bunyan didn’t give us much detail about life inside the Celestial City.
Malick’s previous film, To the Wonder, carried the same themes, but in the context of a single tumultuous marriage. It should also be viewed as a culture-of-life movie. As Dawn LaValle noted in these pages, “this film is a very modern meditation about how complicated it can be to commit, and an enticing whisper about how rich life might be once we do . . . . The drama in To the Wonder hinges on the struggle to bring birth into a fundamentally dead world, and to make that new life permanent.” The film before that, 2011’s critically lauded Tree of Life, by contrast, spent most of its time with a family in the 1950s—but when it showed that family’s adult son in the present day, he seemed to be on the same spiritual quest as the Knight of Cups. In fact, the family relationships in Tree of Life and Knight of Cups are exactly parallel: an angry father, a loving mother, and a brother who died before his time. And if we go back to Malick’s The New World, a story of Pocahontas and the Jamestown colony, we find in settler John Smith another man unable to commit to love, and we find just the opposite in Pocahontas’s eventual husband, John Rolfe. Malick’s message in Knight of Cups is perhaps the message of his whole career.
These films are not directly political. They contain no policy program for the government and no blatant caricatures of despised ideologies. But they express a deep and coherent vision of the purpose of human life. These words from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus could serve as a plot summary for Terrence Malick’s mature work:
It often happens that people are discouraged from creating the proper conditions for human reproduction and are led to consider themselves and their lives as a series of sensations to be experienced rather than as a work to be accomplished. The result is a lack of freedom, which causes a person to reject a commitment to enter into a stable relationship with another person and to bring children into the world, or which leads people to consider children as one of the many ‘things’ which an individual can have or not have, according to taste, and which compete with other possibilities. It is necessary to go back to seeing the family as the sanctuary of life. … In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life.
Do critics, especially those who admire Malick, fail to see this because they don’t want to see it? Because they’re not looking for it? Or is it because we haven’t told them?
William Randolph Brafford writes from New York.