The movies of Terrence Malick, perhaps more so than any others, capture the Biblical truth that this world is both beautiful and broken. In Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and his masterwork, 2011’s The Tree of Life, the images shimmer with remnants of Eden, groan with contemporary suffering and yearn for future glory. In their own way, his films trace the trajectory of Scripture.
Knight of Cups, Malick’s latest, does this too, but within a frustratingly narrow framework. As the movie follows a Hollywood screenwriter (Christian Bale) who is adrift in a fog of desire and self-loathing, its understanding of beauty and brokenness is placed against a strict and moralistic dichotomy. The film cites The Pilgrim’s Progress at its start, and it is almost as blatant an allegory. In Knight of Cups, Bale’s screenwriter is the prodigal son, wasting his inheritance (talent) in Hollywood and losing his soul — in pursuit of sex, drugs and fame — in the process.
The aesthetic texture of the movie reinforces the strident symbolism. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki work with a variety of formats here, from 35mm film to digital GoPro cameras. And although it’s not an ironclad strategy, in general they use traditional film to capture images of pristine nature (the California desert, say, or a beachfront), while digital cameras are used for scenes of debauchery at various nightclubs, parties and hotel rooms. Even one of the exceptions — a gloriously celluloid visit to Las Vegas — fits within this formula, considering the visual and sensual excesses of the Strip are essentially posing as a faux form of glory.
This simplistic approach reduces many of the characters to binary figures — especially the women.
An unfortunate side effect of this simplistic approach is that it reduces many of the characters to binary figures — especially the women. In Knight of Cups, the female characters are either tempting devils (including some whose heads are literally cut off by the frame, so that we only see their naked bodies) or wise mother figures. Indeed, a case could be made that Malick has often used women in the way that other films have employed “magical negro” figures. Knight of Cups features an impressive lineup of actresses — Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, Freida Pinto, Imogen Poots, Cherry Jones — yet their only function is to offer wisdom and care to Bale’s character. Like Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost or Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, these women are sages whose sole purpose is to guide the hero along his journey.
As a result, Knight of Cups registers as outmoded and puritanical. The movie may be concerned with “damnation,” as one character says, yet it represents that state of being with a rigid, Hays Code sensibility, not the complicated psychology (and imagery) of Malick’s other films. This is a director who once encapsulated the doctrine of original sin with a single scene involving two brothers and a BB gun. Here, sin is represented by a stripper and digital cinema.