By now, Terrence Malick’s story has become the stuff of legend. He graduated from Harvard in 1965 and, subsequently, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. While at Oxford, he began a doctoral dissertation on Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein, but his supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, did not find it “sufficiently philosophical.” Frustrated, Malick left academia — albeit not before publishing a translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (1929) — and embarked on a career in filmmaking. His first feature, Badlands (1973), was hailed as a masterpiece, and his second film, Days of Heaven (1978), has been deemed one of the most beautiful works in the history of cinema. And then, shockingly, Malick did not make another film for two decades — a move that was as mysterious as it was controversial. But the layoff did not hurt him. In 1998, he returned with The Thin Red Line — one of the finest war films ever made — and then followed it with two other acclaimed pictures: The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011). The latter, in particular, was considered a groundbreaking work, so much so that the late Roger Ebert situated it among the ten best films of all time. This was arguably the apex of Malick’s career. Feted as a master, a visionary, he had entered a fraternity along with figures such as Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg: he was one of America’s greatest living directors.
Then came Malick’s 2012 film, To the Wonder. It was hardly an abject failure — in the last review he wrote, Ebert said that it was not just a movie but a noble attempt “to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need” — but Malick’s critical and popular reputation undoubtedly took a hit. Though it was made in the same manner as The Tree of Life, featuring lyrical voiceovers (in multiple languages), minimal dialogue, and a loose plot structure centering on metaphysical questions, it failed to resonate as its predecessor did. Several thought Malick had become formulaic, verging on “self-parody.” Others were perplexed by his new filmmaking process, which, among other things, provided its cast with an abundance of scripted lines…only to leave them on the cutting-room floor. Still others speculated that Malick was no longer concerned as much with his audience as with reflecting on his own life, since both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder contain obvious autobiographical references. And, finally, there were some who thought To the Wonder was just plain bad, lacking a “coherent narrative” and resembling a “high-end perfume ad.” Suddenly Malick had become a cause célèbre — an auteur famous for avoiding fame, a “Hollywood Bigfoot,” whose mercurial films people seemingly loved to hate.
Whatever the case, the reception of To the Wonder has done nothing to deter the septuagenerian filmmaker, who is scheduled to release no less than three films in the next couple of years. The first is Knight of Cups, which premiered last February at the Berlin International Film Festival and will come out in the United States on March 4, 2016. Due to a project I’m currently wrapping up, I was fortunate enough to see Knight of Cups last month in New York, and, within five minutes of its start, one thing was clear: it is by no means a retraction of the direction Malick has taken as of late. On the contrary, it is more like an extension of The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, so much so that the three films are demanding to be seen as a kind of trilogy — an intriguing idea, already adumbrated on the Web, which nevertheless exceeds the scope of this review.
Still, the similarities between Knight of Cups and Malick’s two prior efforts are instantly instructive, for they demonstrate that Malick is making films like this on purpose. In other words, his most recent style of filmmaking is an aesthetic choice, rather than a faltering accident. But this point raises a question: why is Malick making films in this way? What do his peculiar approaches to narrative, cinematography, and editing add to his cinematic vision and, perhaps, to the cinematic medium writ large?
Again, this is an impossibly large question, which cannot be fully answered in this context. But I’ll offer a suggestion. Malick now seems less interested in telling a story than in picturing a certain way of being-in-the-world. He is, in short, trying to film “affect” — a notoriously difficult term to define, but one that has been described as “the experience of feeling or mood, of acting or of being acted upon.” Of course, one can tell a story about such things, but Malick seems to want the viewer to feel along with the characters in the film. Hence, with The Tree of Life, the audience does not just watch a movie about growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s; rather, Malick constructs the film in such a way that one shares in the experience. By limiting dialogue as well as featuring jump cuts and POV shots — and thereby resisting the tendency to turn the film into a static object observed by a passive subject — The Tree of Life “gets inside” its subject matter:
Likewise, To the Wonder is not a mere story about two lovers, who, after a blissful romance, slowly begin to drift apart; on the contrary, it tries to record what it feels like to fall in and out of erotic love — an almost universal experience, which explains why Malick’s characters increasingly resemble archetypes. Indeed, they are not concrete, independent characters but, rather, stand-ins for the viewers themselves. This is why the above term “record” is critical. It stems from the Latin recordari, which literally means “to restore to the heart.” Malick, it seems, wants to facilitate our exploration of the most primal and basic experiences of human life, whether the loss of a loved one, the thrill of new love, or the childlike intuition of God’s presence.
What experience, then, does Knight of Cups highlight? The film centers on Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, who flits across the surface of life. To be sure, Rick’s existence is essentially seduction after seduction: Hollywood moguls wine-and-dine him, and he finds himself in the bed of a myriad of beautiful women. It would seem to be a perfect life, except that it isn’t. One of Rick’s brothers has died, another (Wes Bentley) is on the verge of a breakdown, and his ex-wife (Cate Blanchett) — a high-minded doctor, who tends to the lame and to the needy — laments their failed marriage. Hence, no matter how much “fun” Rick has, limitations and shortcomings surround him. Like the earthquakes that rattle southern California, Rick is unstable, dangerous. He is dangerous to those who love him, but, just as importantly, he is dangerous to himself. For insofar as he runs from sensual pleasure to sensual pleasure, he is in peril of losing any sense of who he really is and of what he really wants. Nothing summarizes Rick’s predicament better than the words of one of his smooth-talking Hollywood suitors: “Let me tell you about you.”
Some have complained that this hardly qualifies as a spiritual crisis, but it is worth pointing out that Søren Kierkegaard — a thinker whom Malick has studied and whom he has quoted in both The Tree of Life and To the Wonder — argued otherwise. Famously, Kierkegaard divides human existence into three “stages”: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. And, doubtless, Knight of Cups is a “recording” of the aesthetic stage, where the self seeks a succession of ephemeral, sensual experiences at the expense of an earnest confrontation of life’s meaning and purpose. The dangers of such a lifestyle are manifold: the aesthete is anxious, solipsistic, and terrified of boredom; he will stop at nothing to keep his despair at bay — a desire for which other persons, especially the vulnerable, are often sacrificed. And yet, in the end, the joke is on the aesthete, since he fails to indviduate and, consequently, vanishes into the ether of his own nihilistic misery.
It is just this fate that Rick intuits and, however achingly, seeks to resist. Yet, once more, the point of Knight of Cups is not tied to a tidy overcoming of the protagonist’s dilemma. How can it be, when the protagonist is not so much Rick as the one who also grapples with the aesthetic — that is to say, everyone. Ultimately, then, Knight of Cups seeks to expose aestheticism (in the Kierkegaardian sense) as a trap from which an egress must be sought. But it does not say this; it impresses it. That many will resist such provocation is certain, and, admittedly, Knight of Cups is not always easy viewing. But Malick is pushing at the borders of what the cinematic medium can achieve, and he has deemed that, whatever problems his recent trilogy invites, the risk is worth taking.