Reflections on Malick’s Knight of Cups

knight pic

The Knight of Cups is, I daresay, a great and beautiful film. Merely watching it challenges me the way that “conversing” with Socrates challenges.

The content is not family friendly, so review the Ted Baehr Movieguide information first. There is far too much nudity and other content, though Malick somehow manages to convey Rick’s depravity and still respect natural human beauty.

The film is a must see for die-hard Malick fans and for Hollywood actors who need this kind of Socratic challenge.

The surest way to hate this film is to compare it to Tree of Life. It’s just not Tree of Life. If one compares them, of course Knight of Cups doesn’t “do” as much for me as even New World – but don’t compare! If you want to watch Tree of Life, go re-watch it. Malick is moving on, moving on; he is not stuck in the past.

This movie is about the moment. One character (at the Huntington Gardens!) says: “stay in the moment. Everything is there.” Just because a sentiment about being in the moment been repeated ad nauseum doesn’t mean it is false.

The movie takes you into the moment. Even the ugly moments have beauty.

The movie takes the actors into the moment. Case in point: Christian Bale had no lines:

“The nice and very interesting thing in Terry’s approach was that he didn’t tell us what it was about.”

I wonder if “nice and very interesting” are adjectives uttered through clenched teeth.

Malick literally told his lead actor, “We don’t need to talk that much.”

An Incomplete Film

malick and bale

The Knight of Cups thematizes incompleteness. How can you construct a speech about incompleteness? You can make a complete speech about the topic or you can write an incomplete speech. Malick takes the latter approach.

One critic (David Sims) said:

while it’s fascinating to see Malick take steps into uncharted territory—Knight of Cups is his first fully contemporary, urban film—it’s unsettling to see a filmmaker who’s known for thoroughness work with such underdeveloped material.

Sims misses the point. “Underdeveloped” might be a synonym for the Tarot character, the Knight of Cups. It’s a movie about being underdeveloped, about being about to begin.


The last line is “begin”, recalling T.S. Eliot’s proclamation that “The end is where we start from.”

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Just before this line, though, Rick says, “How shall I begin?” That is his redemption, or the closest we get to it. Rick is awake again. He was looking for the pearl while sleepwalking. Now, awake, he can seek in earnest. The heart is restless until it rests in Him, so restlessness is a precursor to redemption.

Socratic Accounting

portman and bale

Socrates called himself and his friends to account. He famously turned esoteric, ethereal, scientific, metaphysical, or technical conversations into ethical ones: how am I living? Am I caring more for the body and wealth than for the soul? Socrates was never above his own laws, though, and held himself to the same exacting standards he used to make Athenians squirm.

This film is a Socratic call to account, for the audience, for Christian Bale even, and for Hollywood. But it’s not a sermon, for it’s also Malick’s call to account to himself. One critic (Wendy Ide) worried that Malick’s formula is nudging into self-parody. Again, this rather misses the point. Knight of Cups is a self-critique. It’s a critic of Los Angeles, Hollywood, screenwriting, sexual indulgence, hedonism, infidelity, aloofness, Prufrockian indecision, and incompleteness, and therefore a critique of Malick himself, whose career in LA and Hollywood screenwriting (we can only assume) follows even more plot points than his Wikipedia page confirms it does.