Magazine | April 25, 2016, Issue

Angelic Fleshpots

Christian Bale in Knight of Cups (Broad Green Pictures)

Terrence Malick is a great filmmaker who has made a beautiful film on themes that are close to my interests, my theology, and my heart.

I only wish I liked it.

The movie is Knight of Cups, which resembles Malick’s last film, To the Wonder, in that it pushes hard in two directions. First, it’s more explicitly Christian than Malick’s earlier work, and second, it’s yet more untethered from the usual modes of narrative storytelling. It has, rather than a plot, a kind of architecture — an organization that lets you make sense of what you’re seeing, even though each individual scene is a fragment, each bit of dialogue half-heard, the whole thing a book of memories rather than an actual story.

The memories belong to Rick (Christian Bale), a handsome screenwriter in a gorgeous Los Angeles, who finds himself in the middle of the journey of his life without a straight path to guide him. Though it’s really Bunyan rather than Dante who presides here: A quote from The Pilgrim’s Progress begins the proceedings, and the sun-kissed City of Angels is this particular pilgrim’s City of Destruction, from which he needs to find a way of ascent.

Or a way back, perhaps, since along with Bunyan we’re given a second organizing theme, passed along from Rick’s father (Brian Dennehy) in the form of a story he once told his son, about “a young prince, a knight,” who went west in search of a treasure, a hidden pearl. But then he “drank from a cup that took away his memory, and forgot that he was the son of a king.”

That cup is the cup of Hollywood success, and though we see little of Rick’s work, we do see a lot of people telling him how much the studios will pay for it. More important, we see the other compensations of a lotus-eating Angeleno life: the women, each one associated with a card from the Tarot deck (yet another organizing architecture), each one filmed like a goddess in the serene Pacific light.

There are six of them, by my count, including a saintly ex-wife (Cate Blanchett), whose love Rick did not deserve, and then a parade of younger beauties — models, strippers, free spirits, and a married woman (Natalie Portman), who seems for a time to be Rick’s salvation but ultimately manifests his failure, the dead end of his present arc.

That failure, the movie strongly suggests, is not only a failure to commit fully to any of them — in beachside scenes, the women wade in the water, Rick kicks his heels in the shallows — but the deeper failure that flows from that absence of commitment. His sin isn’t just hedonism or lovelessness; it’s the very modern sin of sterility, the refusal to be open to life, to make the choice through which every human being can begin the world again.

This sin reaches backward and forward at once. Rick has cut himself off from his existing family, from his father and brother (Wes Bentley), after a tragedy that claimed another brother’s life, and the severed link to his past seems to be part of what’s preventing him from claiming a real future.

But the movie is explicit about what the future would entail, and it isn’t just love and reconciliation. Children haunt the film’s kaleidoscope, fragments of dialogue regret their absence, and it’s an abortion that seems to help precipitate Rick’s crisis, his abandonment of SoCal for the desert, where we find him wandering whenever the movie returns to what seems to be its present day.

This overtly Christian critique of contemporary rootlessness, executed amid the transfiguration of the commonplace that Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, are so practiced at achieving, has earned Knight of Cups a small but solid base of theologically inclined admirers amid the general critical disaffection. And it does deserve admiration; it’s just that unfortunately the disaffected critics also have a reasonable point, which is that Malick’s retreat from normal narrative is increasingly a retreat from human character itself, into a world of surfaces and archetypes and pure allegory.

Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with allegory (just ask Bunyan!). But it places a heavy weight on specific images and actors to convey universal truths. And the truth that Knight of Cups desperately needs to convey, and doesn’t, is the appeal of a life lived in the moment, and more specifically the appeal of a purely physical attitude toward sex — which is the real reason that a man like Rick would find his rootless, unhappy life so hard to quit.

That pull is by definition deeply carnal, rooted in sins of the flesh and the desire to persist in them indefinitely. And Malick clearly wants to show us that: He has his most diabolical character, a party-thrower played by Antonio Banderas, compare women to flavors — you want strawberry one day, cherry the next, and why would you ever bind yourself to plain vanilla?

But what we see on screen doesn’t correlate with that brief monologue. The women whom Rick cycles through aren’t fully realized human beings, but neither are they tasty flavors or lissome lust objects. Instead, they’re all angels, floating and dancing, effectively disembodied even in what are intended to be sexy, lust-maddened moments. Even the nudity, even the shots of a ménage à trois, feel more like pillow fights in heaven than a window into the actual fleshpots of L.A.

In a sense, Malick is almost too religious a filmmaker. His every image quivers with transcendence, which is great until you want to see why a man might actually resist the grace of God and choose a lower, fallen state. He can dramatize redemption beautifully, but to tell that kind of story, you also need to dramatize temptation effectively. And there, alas, Knight of Cups falls badly short. The film’s transcendentalist strength is therefore also its great weakness, because Malick seems incapable of dramatizing, well, lust.

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