What if Christianity is right after all?
That's what I found myself pondering as the credits rolled at the end of Terrence Malick's breathtaking new film, Knight of Cups.
Not necessarily the Christianity of the trinity and the resurrection. Or its institutions and doctrines. Or literal readings of supposedly inerrant scriptures. But the Christian anthropology that was embedded in Western civilization for the better part of two millennia, before a post-Christian secular worldview began to supplant it roughly two centuries ago.
What does classical Christianity teach about human beings? That we are exiles, torn between competing and conflicting ends, at once prone to absorption in the world and its ways — and drawn beyond it, to something higher. That life is a journey, a pilgrimage filled with false starts and moments when we feel adrift, disoriented, lost. That we are strangers to ourselves, unsure of our own motives, susceptible to self-delusion and self-subversion. That self-giving love, and not simple happiness, is our end — and that the path to reaching it runs through self-sacrifice and suffering.
In a world that encourages us to deny so many of these precepts; in a culture that continually devises new and more seductive ways to distract us from thoughts of any end beyond the satisfaction of worldly desires; in a film industry that devotes vast resources and stupefying technological prowess to fashioning dazzling spectacles that overwhelm the senses but say nothing to the soul — in 2016 America it is astonishing that Terrence Malick has made a movie that offers its audience a compelling vision of an emphatically Christian outlook on reality.
Knight of Cups is the third such vision Malick has given us in the past five years. In The Tree of Life (2011), Malick examined the problem of evil and the place of suffering in creation by telling the story of a single family — and by placing that family's experience in the context of the vastly broader story of the origins and ends of the universe itself. Then, in To the Wonder (2012), he focused on love — romantic or sexual love (eros), but also unconditional divine love or charity (agape) — and highlighted the many ways we are both drawn to and inclined to flee them.
Knight of Cups explores similar theological terrain while highlighting the temptations and distractions that lead us astray during our journey through life.
Rick (Christian Bale) is a Hollywood screenwriter who's had some success and gets to enjoy a life of boundless sensual pleasure. He is surrounded by and immersed in luxury and excess. He's also been married and divorced, to a doctor named Nancy (Cate Blanchett), and had extended relationships with numerous other women. Yet Rick feels spiritually adrift. He's dabbled in various religions — including Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Tarot (the last of which gives the film its obscure title). But none of them have brought him fulfillment. The movie is about how he eventually makes his way (as his father puts it at one point) "from darkness to light."
Described this way, the film sounds quaint, a bit banal, and more than a little pedantic. And that's what it easily could have been if Malick told stories in a traditional way. But he doesn't. With each movie since The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick has moved further and further away from standard storytelling, and in the process has cultivated one of the most distinctive styles in the history of cinema.
A latter-day Malick movie always tells an overarching story, but it does so with almost no dialogue beyond scattered fragments, usually heard out of context and often obscured by crosstalk or at a barely audible level. Instead, characters primarily speak in voiceovers, revealing private thoughts and worries about the action taking place in often disorientingly edited jumbles of scenes. Most of those scenes appear to be snippets from a life placed associatively beside one another in the way they might come to consciousness in a session of psychoanalysis. But others serve as visual metaphors, with characters wandering through stark desert landscapes, staring out at spiritually desiccated modernist office complexes, or lingering under water as if in a dream.
The visuals, throughout, are spectacular. Malick and the cinematographer he's worked with since 2005's The New World (Emmanuel Lubezki) construct images of sumptuous beauty bathed in natural light. Mixed with long, slow tracking shots and jarring, off-kilter handheld camera work, it can all be a little hard to take — at once overwhelming and underwhelming, giving us almost too much and too little at the same time.
As Knight of Cups opens, Rick is wandering through Death Valley, the lowest and driest place in North America. A voiceover from Rick's father James (Brian Dennehy) recalls a story he used to tell his son when he was a child, about how there was once a king who sent his own son, "a young prince, a knight," in search of a pearl. Along the way the son "drank from a cup that took away his memory. He forgot that he was the son of a king," and forgot that the purpose of his pilgrimage was to look for the pearl. Half slumbering through his journey, the son encounters messengers sent by his father to rouse him and bring him back to wakefulness. "But he slept on," lost, wandering aimlessly, directionless.
Next we see Rick awoken in his Los Angeles apartment by an earthquake that leaves him spiritually as well as physically shaken. "All those years, living the life of someone I didn't even know": With those words the film plunges us into Rick's existential crisis as he reflects on the hedonistic life he's lived, the women he's loved (or kept himself from loving), and the family he's struggled to relate to — above all his father and brother, all three of them badly damaged by the premature death (and probable suicide) of a third brother at some point in the past.
As we skip from one scene of debauchery to another, one romantic dalliance to the next, a series of voiceovers convey messages of wistful regret and unfulfilled spiritual yearning. The stately voice of actor Charles Laughton recites a passage of Plato's Phaedrus about how "once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven." One girlfriend (Della, played by Imogen Poots) taunts (or tempts?) Rick by telling him, "You don't want love. You want a 'love experience.'" As if in reply, Rick speaks about craving a "desire so deep I'll throw my life away" and expresses the conviction that "we're not leading the lives we're meant for. We're meant for something else." And repeatedly he asks, "Which way should I go? How do I begin?"
We get first glimpses of an answer from the scenes and voiceovers involving Rick's father, his ex-wife, and a more recent lover named Elizabeth (Natalie Portman). We see James shattered by his son's death, washing blood from his hands in a bowl of water, and embroiled in horrible fights with his surviving sons, furniture smashed. Wracked with guilt, James begs for someone, something to "redeem my life. Justify it." James recognizes how lost Rick is, how he's incapable of making sense of his life or fitting its fragments together into a whole, because James has had the same experience, which he describes as a form of "damnation."
Later on, James is comforted by a priest who tells him that God "shows his love not by helping you avoid suffering, but by sending you suffering.... That's a gift more precious than the happiness we wish for.” And then in the film's closing minutes, James beseeches his son, "Find the light you knew in the past, as a child.... The light in the eyes of others." That, he says, is "the pearl."
Rick has had moments when he caught the light in the eyes of his ex-wife. Nancy considered him the love of her life. He feels that she gave him "what the world can't give: mercy, love, joy." But he couldn't reciprocate: "I was afraid when I was young, afraid of life." Including of new life. "Are you sorry we didn't have babies?" Nancy asks in voiceover, and then provides her own answer: "You never really wanted to be totally inside our marriage. Or outside it either.”
Babies, children, new life: As the film goes on, they keep turning up, first in passing on the street, then lingering in longer shots, playing on the beach and in the water (the movie's recurring symbol of all-enveloping love). At one point we even catch a glimpse of an ultrasound showing a baby in utero.
It all builds to Rick's love affair with Elizabeth, a married woman who admits she's breaking her wedding vows to be with him. "You have love in you, I know it," she tells Rick, who feels for the first time like he's ready to give himself over to another: "I want to go away with you, marry you." But it ends in anguish when Elizabeth discovers she's pregnant and doesn't know whether the baby is Rick's or her husband's. After an abortion, sobbing, she tells Rick that she sometimes manages for a few minutes to forget the lost child, making momentary happiness possible. But then she remembers. "What are we now?" she asks, bereft. Then we see an image of young girls dressed like angels, playing in a mist-filled room as Rick intones in voiceover, "Forgive me."
By the end of the film, Rick has ascended out of Death Valley to higher ground at the foot of a towering mountain. His father had said earlier, "My son, I know you. I know you have a soul." And Rick has finally come to know it, too. We see flashes of a final woman (Isabel, played by Isabel Lucas) together with Rick, and a baby crawling on a wooden deck. And then Rick speaks the film's final word: "Begin."
To cynical, secular ears, it must sound ridiculous, mawkish. But it is neither.
When Terrence Malick looks out at our world, he sees abundance and excess, pleasures and distractions, anxiety and aimlessness — and concealed beneath it all, feeding the vaguely felt but pervasive discontent, a spark of something transcendent that we're rapidly losing the capacity to name and understand. To make sense of it he's reached back to the interpretive categories that arose and flourished at an earlier moment in our civilization.
Are we really so much wiser than the men and women of those earlier ages? Were they really so comparatively naïve? Or might they have something vitally important to teach us about ourselves — something we seem on the verge of forgetting?
Those are just a few of the salutary questions posed by Terrence Malick's profoundly moving work of Christian art.