For Søren Kierkegaard, “life’s way” — and his own writing — followed three stages: the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious. He paid the price for his emphasis on the third stage; Kierkegaard is regarded today by most academics as only a marginal thinker in philosophy.
The career of Terrence Malick, who studied Kierkegaard before turning to film, has followed much the same progression. Early films like Badlands won the adoration of aesthetes everywhere, who praised his eye for natural beauty. After a 20-year hiatus, critics lauded The Thin Red Line, which turned to more moral quandaries. Now, a trilogy of films — The Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and his latest, Knight of Cups — are passionately exploring the religious sense.
And he’s paying for it.
To hear critics tell it, the fall from grace is merely technical. His lack of narrative focus (or a script), overlapping voiceovers and GoPro cinematography create a self-important, self-indulgent feel that finally becomes self-parody in Knight of Cups. Critics have called it “a ponderous affair”; “attenuated and generic”; “muddled, aimless, indecipherable and shallow.” “Malick has made what is essentially the same movie three times in a row,” NPR sneered. “It’s time to ask if he knows what he’s doing.”
But maybe he does — and we just don’t like it.
Malick introduces us to Rick (a taciturn Christian Bale), a screenwriter who spends most of his time carousing and womanizing up and down the Hollywood Hills. The host at a luxurious party summarizes what Rick’s life has been about thus far. “There are no principles; just circumstances,” he muses. “The world’s a swamp. You have to fly over it.” Fantasy, then — illusion — is Rick’s only reality. “You can be whoever you want to be,” one of his women whispers to him from a stripper pole. “You can be a saint; you can be a god.”
But there’s a problem.
Rick is completely alienated, watching himself move through his life with a kind of hollow disgust. Billboards taunt him; memories torture him. He has no idea who he is or where his life is going. “I spent 30 years of my life not living it but ruining it for myself,” he realizes. “Where did I go wrong?”
Where indeed? Some critics charge that Malick isn’t clear. We’re thrown into a lot of different backstories — his father’s failures, his brother’s suicide, his failed marriage, an affair that ends in death — and it’s a little difficult to break down just what’s going on.
But some attention to detail goes a long way. “Knight of Cups” references a Tarot card, which is itself a nod to a running allegory of the “Hymn of the Pearl” taken from the gnostic “The Acts of Thomas,” while elements of Buddhism take center stage during a dalliance with Freida Pinto. It’s clear that this is a spiritual crisis, and so it’s really about — well, everything.
Yet a New Age smorgasbord Knight of Cups is not. In the end, these signposts very clearly point to just one thing.
Quotations from The Pilgrim’s Progress haunt Rick; his father ponders damnation (“the pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there”) and quotes the Psalms (“according to Your great compassion, blot out my transgressions”); a priest counsels him on suffering (“He shows His love not by helping you avoid suffering, by sending you suffering”); and in his soul, Rick is shown as approaching a soaring mountain, a hugely important biblical symbol. “You live in exile,” his father declares in a resounding summation of Christian anthropology. “Stranger in a strange land. A pilgrim, a knight. Find your way from darkness to light.”
Yes, I think Malick knows exactly what he’s doing.
Against this backdrop Rick becomes the very picture of despair, embodying what Kierkegaard (quoting the Gospel of John) called “the sickness unto death”; in a word, he’s mired in sin. That theme is latent in Malick’s earlier films but moved to center stage in The Tree of Life when an adolescent Jack steals a neighbor’s nightgown, gazes longingly at it and then throws it into a river. What seems like a slight peccadillo is, for Jack, a momentous caving in to concupiscence. “What have I started?” he whispers to himself. “What have I done?”
What Jack started, Rick wants to finish. He stands between the end of the beginning and the beginning of life everlasting, between a long Lenten darkness and an Easter resurrection.
Is that a vision we’re ready to accept? Is it one we can even see? One reviewer rolls his eyes at the “nightmarish” plight of this “poor soul” who, on top of being “handsome and healthy,” strolls the beach “in his Armani outfit, usually in the company of his latest eye-meltingly gorgeous girlfriend,” and is “forced to attend star-studded house partie. … Where did he go wrong indeed?” In other words, Rick has all the wealth, power, pleasure and honor in the world — he’s living the dream! So why should we feel sorry for him?
Kierkegaard wrote that “the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” Maybe Knight of Cups does more than just paint a picture of that sickness; it holds a mirror up to our age’s unawareness that it’s not health.
Of that, Kierkegaard would be proud.