“And in the luck of night, in secret places where no other spied, I went without my sight, without a light to guide, except the heart that lit me from inside.”
— St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul
Cinema is a miracle. Franchises and multiplexes make us forget, but to watch cinema is to receive profound insight on the inner workings of life and to experience a meditation on the world from another’s point of view. Roger Ebert called the movies a machine for generating empathy. Ideally, you can feel your world growing when you watch a special movie. Watching The Tree of Life or Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line as a young movie enthusiast was such a transcendent experience for me. Those films were more than an emotional experience, and certainly more than entertainment — they managed to impart me with a kind of wisdom that brought me closer to understanding the maddening experience of being alive. Terrence Malick is a director who reminds you of the true possibilities of cinema, how we’ve barely scratched the surface on what it can offer our species as a means of expression that is more vast, intimate and deep than perhaps any other. Malick is my favorite film director.
Nevertheless, I was heartbroken when I walked out of his last film, To The Wonder, about three years ago, stalking out of Cinemapolis in an agitated state of ennui. I didn’t understand it. Nothing clicked for me. Malick had grown more and more esoteric and experimental with each new film, and finally his work crossed a threshold where I could no longer comprehend it. Clearly, many of the critics are in the same boat — Malick’s newest, Knight of Cups, stayed a mere week at Cinemapolis and received middling reviews and a consensus of mostly frustration. There were a few shining voices who called his new film gold, and I knew I was going to see it no matter what the weather, but I grew disheartened with the prospect of losing further respect for my favorite storyteller’s abilities.
For the first third or so of the film, I was very concerned. Here’s the plot: depressed screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) struggles with issues in his family, marriage and the general tedium of glitzy Los Angeles. To borrow a phrase from Martin Scorsese, in this film, the plot is just a line you can hang things on. What Malick chooses to hang on said line — his own intensely personal worries, obsessions, musings and observations, are the film’s true subject matter. And for the first half hour, I had no idea what Malick was getting at. The film remained an enigma, my worst fear personified, a gaseous cloud of fog I could not fully grasp.
I did a strange thing midway through the first half; I decided to plug in my earbuds. The images on screen were resonating with me somehow, perhaps on a deeper, more subconscious level, but I could not intellectually decode them. I found that the rambling voiceovers which Malick is famous for were only distracting me from getting at the film’s true meaning. So there I was, listening to my music in the theater, while watching a movie. A very unusual moviegoing experience, but Malick makes very unusual films. In fact, he makes films in a way nobody else ever has.
Then, halfway through the movie, I had an epiphany. I had grown bored and tired in my seat, my interest was failing and I was just about ready to leave and walk out of the theater, but something clicked.
Ethereal jellyfish behind a wall of glass. Vibrant green trees hedged and clipped. Gray glass skyscrapers against a gorgeous sunset. Magnificent, flowing water bricked up in a postmodern mansion pool. A pretty face inside a lurid strip club, filled with garish neon lights that contain a certain transient beauty nevertheless.
What is Malick up to? What do these cascading, seemingly unrelated, stubbornly random images have to do with each other? By the end of the film, I believed I knew. The following is my interpretation, backed up with a significant amount of evidence.
To my mind, all of Malick’s work is, on some level, about the struggle of the soul to unite with the greater humanity that connects all things — essentially, God. That’s an extremely ambitious and potentially pretentious idea to make films about, but again, this is Malick we’re talking about. Says Jim Caviezel’s Private Witt in Thin Red Line: “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of. All faces of the same man, one big self.” That film dramatizes the immense struggle of every soldier to see the miraculous amidst the barbs, grenades, mortars and carnage of warfare.
Armed with this knowledge, I began to see the connection as I watched Rick and his unstable brother (Wes Bentley) and callous father (Brian Dennehy). The key moment came from watching a pelican crawl along the nondescript, and rather soulless, texture of a beachside dock. Scan the frame in any given moment of this film, and you will inevitably find one element that is an expression of man’s inability to relate to the eternal (glass buildings, Gucci suits, TVs, fancy cars, Hollywood excess) which keep people trapped not only emotionally, but spiritually as well. Malick posits that such a lifestyle as many of us are accustomed to is one that prevents the soul from achieving transcendence. Scan the frame and you will also find, within the very same shot, some expression of majestic primal beauty (glistening trees, flowing water, mountains, rock formations, birds fluttering in the sky). The haphazard voiceovers, they do not add to the movie. Contrarily, they detract — they function as an accurate representation of the distraction our inner voices play in our daily lives. We fill our days with an internal monologue that is often fickle and arbitrary, doesn’t hold water, and is really meaningless. Occasionally, however, there is a snatch of dialogue or narration that truly resonates. Listen to Rick’s father tell him he is proud of his son for outdoing him in life — “That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” says his father — and witness a truly moving scene. Malick’s own father died in 2013, at which time his younger brother had committed suicide (so too had Malick’s other brother in the 1970s). The filmmaker has an overwhelmingly personal agenda here, and you can feel a palpable sense of grieving and a struggle for hope in this film that is thoroughly inspiring.
Rick yearns for spiritual reunion. His soul is in dire straits, he must find his way back from dark to light. This sounds incredibly pretentious to many a filmgoer. Many claim Malick’s refusal to shy away from such elemental subject matter is a hoax and that his films only pretend to great realization and poetry. What do you expect Malick, a lifelong philosophy scholar who specialized in phenomenology, to make movies about? I say the director takes massive risks and they do not always pay off, but in the case of Knight, they do. In the case of some of his other films, they pay off in spades. Knight of Cups is a wonderful film, and it may even be a great one that I have not fully mastered yet.