We Are Water: “Knight of Cups” As An Allegory For American Disaffection
Frost melts, and the skies open to downpours. The mountains and forests are rich with watersheds, whose confluences form brooks, then streams, then rivers, whose mouths flow into seas. The tides inexorably rush in, and retreat. Waves crash and erode the shore then curl out. When we visit the beach, the waves crash over us. We either dive through, let them throw us onto our backs, or ride the surf. Resistance is futile. Humans are mostly comprised of water. We are water. We are fluid. We are markets.
Terrence Malick does not make “easily accessible” films. In fact, for ~20 years, he didn’t make any films at all. He was absent from the film making world from the late 1970s until 1998, when The Thin Red Line premiered. His films are characterized by lush cinematography, philosophical inquiry, and ontological voice-over narration, the quantity of which far outweighs the amount of dialogue contained within his films. In other words, his movies make little money. I suspect the only reason he is actually still a part of Hollywood, though a blessing and curse that may be, is because famous actors want to work with him; he has not wanted for A-listers.
His latest feature, Knight of Cups, follows a screenwriter named Rick embarking on a spiritual journey following crises of conscience due to the disintegration of his familial and romantic lives. And it is the story of the current state of these United States of America.
Malick’s films internalize historic and (here comes an internal pun) watershed moments in American history and culture. The Thin Red Line follows an infantry company doing its part to take a hill in the Guadalcanal campaign. The New World is a romantic historical drama set at the first American settlement of Jamestown. Knight of Cups and Tree of Life are metaphorical examinations of America.
Professional critics have been pretty rough on Malick, to say nothing of amateur critics. Not every movie has to be drawn from a comic, YA novel, or books about pre-teen witches, sexy vampires, and/or self-loathing twenty-somethings convincing themselves they’re into S&M. You won’t find any fatsos throwing and eating pies in Malick’s movies, nor the formulaic drudgery of a Nicholas Sparks affair. God forbid audiences are subjected to non-linear mise-en-scene, images for their own sake (the equivalent of a ballet’s divertissement). Not every scene in a movie must drive the plot forward. If you haven’t seen a Terrence Malick film, think of a non-Batman Christopher Nolan film, but remove the plot.
The reviews for Knight of Cups have ranged from the quizzical to the antagonistic. Most critics, who’d ordinarily give him the benefit of the doubt because he is an auteur, have derided his latest work as too non-linear, too philosophical, too indulgent.
Adam Graham of Detroit News writes: “Taken as a straightforward movie, ‘Knight of Cups’ is an indecipherable mess. Taken as a piece of nonlinear visual poetry, ‘Knight of Cups’ is still an indecipherable mess.”
From David Ehrlich, Slate.com: “Malick has moved from self-discovery to self-affirmation; he knows exactly what he’s looking for, and Knight of Cups, for all its splendor, made me wish that he could take a swig and forget.”
Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times: “A ponderous affair, never taking 30 seconds to make a point when four minutes is available.”
Malick’s films can be challenging, but they are not designed to be antagonistic towards the audience, the way Rick Alverson’s (The Comedy, which I recommend, & Entertainment, which I do not) are.
I may not be Pauline Kael (Though perhaps I am channeling Dennis Miller, what with the references and all), but I’d like to chide those critics who didn’t particularly care for Knight of Cups by asserting that they didn’t get it.
It is helpful to view Knight of Cups as a sequel to The Tree of Life (another movie mainstream audiences detested). Both films follow a protagonist coping with the loss of a brother, and dealing with conflicts with his father. These two films are very autobiographical for Malick. His younger brother committed suicide at a young age, and Malick was occasionally at loggerheads with his father. During his two-decade hiatus, Malick taught philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Though the ostensible plot is drawn from Malick’s own life and is using Rick to contemplate and reflect on his own life, Knight of Cups is an opportunity for the audience to do the same. Critics and viewers upset that they are taken for a spiritual ride are not grasping that the movie is providing a space for the viewers to ask their own questions, to reflect on their own lives and on the world we inhabit. Knight of Cups is “plotless” so that viewers can affix their own meaning to its scenes, interpret the symbolism as they see fit, and develop their own allegories. Though Malick’s films are intensely autobiographical, they are not meant to be vehicles for audiences to live vicariously through him, or to try to understand his pain and motivations.
Knight of Cups is as spiritual as it is elemental, and it is very elemental. The tops of palm trees and skyscrapers, and helicopters and airplanes slip the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. Scenes occur in the desert, we watch the wind drive the turbines of windmills, and water. Always, there is water. There are countless scenes that take place near bodies of water; it is whether the water is freely flowing or constrained that is important. Throughout the film, Rick and his love interests are at beaches. They run towards and away from the tide, careful to keep their feet dry, or they frolic in the surf, letting the crashing wave soak the bottoms of their pants and skirts, or they succumb and allow let the salty water to wash over their bodies, completely and baptismally. These are Rick’s happiest moments. The moments of longing and sadness he feels are when he is near swimming pools, and there are a lot of swimming pools; water that is not allowed to flow freely.
In one scene, Rick returns to his condo, interrupting a home invasion in progress. He is relieved of his bill fold and other personal items, some of which include his manuscripts. He must also endure the indignities of his work being devalued, and instructed what and how to write his screenplays by know-nothing suits working at the behest of the studio system.
Rick falls in love with the character played by Natalie Portman. Her husband has left her; Rick wants to marry her. Towards the end of their affair, she reveals to Rick that her husband has come back, and she is pregnant. She doesn’t know who the father is, so she terminates her pregnancy. When she relays this to Rick, she is distraught, and both share in the trauma caused by her one-sided decision.
Disaffection is at the core of Knight of Cups, but it is not just the disaffection experienced by a character; it is the feeling of our nation, breathing heavily and staring blankly at the surrounding nihilism. And it is a disaffection that is uniquely American. It is a disaffection borne of the denial of the natural rights of man. It is a disaffection derived from people feeling disenfranchised from the power structures that control their behavior and livelihoods. Disaffection that is a result of the gulf between instant and short term gratification and long term fulfillment. Disaffection from the effects of the invisible hands of decisions by those who pull the levers of power which prevent us from reaching our true potential. A disaffection that gives rise to know nothing politicians who embody our rage, but whom we are all well aware offer nothing but empty promises.
For so many, the promise of the American Dream, of capitalism, has been washed away. Is there any element that better embodies “creative destruction” than water? Whether or not he set about to, Malick created the quintessential American film. The American way of life is built upon fluidity! Whether it be cash, or the ever changing social firmament.
Knight of Cups posits that Americans have turned away from what made this country great: the reverence for the protection of life, liberty, and property.
We want to flow freely. We don’t want to be boxed in, because that is what brings about spiritual apathy. Gulfs may divide us, but we are united by currents. There is resistance; there is water.
Always, there is water.