Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 58 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country,
and there he squandered his property in dissolute living…But when he came to himself…
I found Terence Malick’s newest film even more difficult to follow than his Tree of Life or To the Wonder. Even his more traditional narrative films The Thin Red Line and The New World were a challenge to viewers accustomed to the fast pace of most American films, but now even Malick fans like myself are bound to be puzzled by this latest stream of conscious-like film. In my case this is compounded by the constant use of voice-overs whispering so low that my hearing-impaired ears could not pick up many of the words. For me this was an almost totally visual experience—and fortunately the gorgeous camera work Emmanuel Lubezki, who has not only worked on three previous Malick films, but also such grand ones as The Revenant, Gravity, and Birdman, catches the beauty of numerous beaches, sunsets, and the colorful spectacles of the casinos of Las Vegas, and even a strip club. Even were you to turn the soundtrack off, this film would be a richly rewarding visual meditation.
With good reason we hear a quotation from John Bunyan’s spiritual classic Pilgrim’s Progress early on, because the main character Rick (Christian Bale) is shown almost constantly in motion, a modern pilgrim walking amidst pitfalls and barriers that continually threaten or lead him astray. He is a Hollywood scriptwriter who was unable to love enough his first wife, a doctor named Nancy (Cate Blanchett).
The voice of his estranged father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) recites a story he had told Rick and his two brothers when they were children: “Once there was a young prince whose father, the king of the East, sent him down into Egypt to find a pearl. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a cup. Drinking it, he forgot he was the son of a king, forgot about the pearl and fell into a deep sleep.” Thus Rick is the modern counterpart to that prince, seduced by the false values of his Hollywood culture. At one point he says, “All those years, living the life of someone I didn’t know.”
Along with scenes of love and debauchery at parties and in luxurious hotel suites with the six women in his life, we see him quarreling with his father and dealing with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley). There had been a second brother, but in some manner not revealed to us, he had died–possibly by suicide, because the death had deeply wounded the father and two remaining sons. (One scene shows the father washing his bloody hands in a bowl.)
Rick has dabbled in other religions–Hinduism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Tarot, and it is a card from the last which gives the film it’s strange name, apparently a reference to the prince or “knight” in the father’s story. It is the Christianity into which he was born that Malick seems to be inferring lies the balm for Rick’s starved soul, desperately looking for healing or fulfillment. Joseph is somewhat like the father in Jesus’ Parable of the Father and Two Sons. They may have quarreled strongly in the past, but he does not give up on his wayward son. Although at one moment feeling damned himself, he says to Rick, “”My son, I know you. I know you have a soul.” Thus Rick finds himself saying such things as “We’re not leading the lives we’re meant for. We’re meant for something else.” And more than once he asks, “Which way should I go? How do I begin?”
Earlier on, after his desert trek, it is a strong earthquake shaking his Santa Monica apartment that starts Rick on his way back. Indeed, as this was happening theologian Paul Tillich’s famous sermon “The Shaking of the Foundations,” flashed through my mind. It is based on the 6th chapter of Isaiah in which the prophet during a shaking of the temple where he is worshipping is called out of sin to a life of holiness and prophetic service.
A stream of moments from Rick’s debauched past flow by. The women come and go, with it apparent that Nancy was the one whose love for him was strongest, though his latest, with the already married Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), is also intense–Rick now able to really give himself in love to another person. “You have love in you, I know it,” Elizabeth tells him. But their relationship comes to a sad end when she become pregnant, and so unsure of which man in her life is the father is she that she undergoes an abortion.
Rick’s father when grieving over his dead son apparently has found some consolation in the words of his priest Fr. Zeitlinger, “If you are unhappy, you shouldn’t take it as God’s disfavor. Just the contrary. Might be the very sign He loves you. He shows His love not by helping avoid suffering, but by sending you suffering, by keeping you there. To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself, higher than your own will. Takes you from the world to find what lies beyond it.” Thus near the end of the film he urges his son, “Find the light you knew in the past, as a child…. The light in the eyes of others.” This brings us back to his story of the quest for “the pearl.” At last he has found love in Isabel (Isabel Lucas), who helps him find the light he has been seeking. A baby crawls on a wooden deck. Rick speaks the last word in the film, “Begin.”
I love the way that both Pilgrim’s Progress and the story of the prince/knight and the cup inform this film! The concept of our sinful estate as being a matter of forgetting that we are the son of a king, and thus in need of regaining our memory is a helpful one. It reminds me of the concept of one of the Fathers of the early church who wrote that sinful humanity is like an almost obliterated portrait that stands in need of the talented hand of a Master Artist to restore it.
There is too much packed into Knight of the Cup for any one person to be able to take it all in—at least for this writer. No one should see a Terence Malick film alone, though you must choose your film companion wisely, lest you lose a casual friend, frustrated by having to work hard to “see” the meaning in each scene. This is a film in which my mantra “All of us see more than one of us.” We really need each other’s help—what I missed, you might see; and what you missed, I or another group member, might have seen.
Possessed of a deeply spiritual nature, Terence Malick is not interested in entertaining his viewers, but rather in challenging and expanding their vision. The spiritually lazy or complacent need st ay away, instead taking in the spiritual pap spooned out in so-called faith based films like God Is Not Dead. I am still struggling to understand some of what passed before my uncomprehending eyes, which makes me glad that it will soon be available on disc and streaming video. Although best seen on a large screen because of the gorgeous cinemaphotgraphy, any way you can watch it will prove to be rewarding—if you are ready to work hard at the process of seeing.
This review will be in the April 2016 issue of VP with a set of discussion questions.