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A Pilgrimage to Transcendence: "Knight of Cups" and the Films of Terrence Malick

Ever since his debut feature Malick has been making films about pilgrimages while simultaneously embarking on one himself.
Josh Cabrita
Ever since his debut feature in 1973, Terrence Malick has been making films about pilgrimages while simultaneously embarking on one himself. As his characters venture towards an abstract transcendence, Malick has taken every step with them, developing a language to express an inexplicable feeling, a connection beyond the material world. Few directors have an oeuvre as continuous as Malick, whose career feels like one long film with each title a different step along the same journey. As a viewer, a pilgrimage is also required; if you haven’t been following Malick’s lead, it’s very difficult to find his destination.
All of his films search for immaterial satisfaction: a utopia, a love, a connection beyond empirical explanation. It can be seen in Badlands (1973) through Kit’s desire to mythologize himself into a timeless enigma, or in the “other world” that Private Witt imagines in The Thin Red Line (1999), or when Pocahontas calls out to the “mother” of the land in The New World (2005). The Tree of Life (2011) goes from the beginning to the end of time to find it, but in To the Wonder (2012), we look for it in the intimacy of two lovers. What unites all of Malick’s films is this conflict between self-centered consumption, which is an earthly pleasure, and a spiritual satisfaction far greater than anything physical could provide. As we will see later, this theme is made explicit in Malick’s allusions to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that which is to Come in his latest film Knight of Cups (2015). The journey alluded to in the title of Bunyan’s novel is the development of almost all of Malick’s characters: from purposelessly wandering to traversing toward the infinite.
As Malick’s career has progressed, the antidote for the lack that all of his characters feel has been slowly defined. What starts off in Badlands through Kit’s conscious creation of his own image as a way to live forever without eternal life, is a priest’s yearning for a spiritual connection with Jesus Christ in To the Wonder. Throughout the last forty years, Malick’s influences as a director have become progressively more Christian, as his films evoke a battle between materialism and spiritualism—pleasure from perceptual things or love from an elusive deity. This conflict between material consumption and everlasting fulfilment plays out in the ambivalence of his characters, and even in the very depiction of nature in his films, which doubles as a path to God and a material to be owned.
Trees, water, land, wind and other elements of nature, which are all individually complex signifiers in Malick’s films, are material property and passages to spiritual transcendence, not as a kind of pantheism but as divine revelation through creation. In Badlands, Kit and Holly find solace in a tree fort separated from the oppression of a small town, freed by an anarchic state and their connection with the land. Days of Heaven (1978) traces a couple who try to inherit the land of a wealthy farmer. The Thin Red Line is about a regiment of American soldiers during World War II who capture an island from the Japanese. The New World follows the territorial conflict between British colonizers and the indigenous people of Jamestown, Virginia. The Tree of Life’s central tension is between a man attached to his property and possessions, and his wife who focuses on the eternal. And To the Wonder follows a man involved with gentrifying an area for new housing complexes.
And yet, in every single one of these films Malick’s formal signature—shots depicting nature as philosophical whispers are heard on the soundtrack—offers a gateway to something beyond the flow of a stream, the flight of a bird, or the light shining between trees: namely, the creator. The conflict between his character’s materialism and his desire to connect with something greater is embedded into the very representation of nature, as each film centers over a fight for land, the land that is also a passageway to the eternal, immaterial being that all the characters are looking for.
This conflict is reflected in the characters: Jack in The Tree of Life profoundly and simply encapsulates the typical Malick character in one short whisper: “Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside of me.” his mother representing grace, his father nature. All of his characters struggle with this: Private Witt’s violence in the war and his desire to bring about that “other world”; Captain John Smith’s intent to colonize the land while preserving the pureness established by the indigenous people. They are all torn between the physical and the immaterial, the limited and the infinite, the dying and the eternal.
With each new film, Malick has developed his ways of expressing this eternal being—“The love that loves us,” as a character says in To the Wonder. While it is impossible to dissect all the reoccurring images in this brief essay, his films, especially the later ones, are not merely the “nature-porn” that some have described. If you don’t understand the foundation, it’s impossible to see how he has built on it. Malick never wastes a shot, each image of a bird, a stream, or a waterfall bursts with metaphorical significance and an intangible power.
In this regard, The Tree of Life was a pivotal progression for the filmmaker; it marked the point at which the basis for his language had been established and he was now able to add depth to it, to add additional meaning based on the unique codes he had already crafted. In the last shot of The New World, a film that was a huge leap in the development of the director’s form, a tree stretches towards the heavens, recalling the instance where someone says that a tree “stretches to the light”—light always representing that transcendental being that Malick’s characters interact with through voiceover.
As Malick enters into a new time in The Tree of Life, which is his first film set in a contemporary period, he comments on our world based on the codes of his earlier films. A shot of a skyscraper that looks directly up at the building, stretching toward the heavens, can be seen as a hollow and aesthetically pleasing image, or with knowledge of how the director uses this composition it becomes a statement about how we have replaced a pure connection with God with cold corporate lifestyles, a pursuit of material wealth at the expense of being spiritually poor. This is not to say that Malick’s films don’t stand on their own, just that they are difficult to understand without knowledge of his radically unique form of expression.
I started off this essay by arguing that there is a clear narrative that emerges in the progression of Terrence Malick’s career. Although each of his films are about a struggle to connect with something that transcends this material world, the very idea has become distinctly Christian as his form became more abstract in an attempt to evoke the transcendent feelings that the characters feel when they connect with God. An internal conflict is laden inside many of his characters between their impulses to satisfy themselves through materials rather than this transcendent being. This internal struggle is represented via depictions of nature in his films because the narratives revolve around the seizing and ownership of land, and yet some of these same images of nature express the characters’ desire to connect with God, or the immaterial being to whom they pray. I stop to make this as clear as possible for two reasons: (1) the filmmaker has a track record for being elusive to the point of incomprehension, and (2) thematically speaking, Knight of Cups, furthers this introspection.
Following The Tree of Life, his Palme d’Or-winning opus, many critics who praised the director’s earlier films (less abstract and less distinctly Christian) have deemed his most recent work “self-parody” and “evangelical.” These critics fail to notice that Malick has been heading here all along; even his early films are loaded with Biblical allusions. In his review of To the Wonder, David Denby wrote for The New Yorker that “The movie is pervaded by a cataclysmic sense of loss, but we don’t need to be chastised with the ideal of Christian love to understand that sex isn’t enough.”
As Josh Timmerman points out in his essay on Malick for the Notebook, critics have largely ignored the director’s Christian influences, and criticized them when they were made explicit in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder. Thus, it’s not surprising that Knight of Cups, the director’s latest, which also furthers his spiritual and formal exploration, would be received with mixed reviews when it premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2015. By appropriating passages of John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Malick announces a source that may have been an influence on all of his films, revealing a layer that has run through his work all along.
Knight of Cups, his densest exploration of spirituality yet, is inspired by Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of Christian conversion that Malick updates and sets against Hollywood hedonism, post-modern culture, and a growing divide between rich and poor. Although there have been hints of political commentary in The New World, and one could also argue The Tree of Life, Knight of Cups is the first film where Malick’s spiritual worldview clearly impacts his politics. Not only furthering his thematic study, Knight of Cups sees the director experimenting even more with his form: the prominent use of low-grade digital images, an editing style that further obscures the narrative, and a total abstraction of images which are purely emotional and metaphorical in their evocation.
Although Bunyan’s novel is clearer and more didactic in its construction, the thematic and narrative framework in which Knight of Cups and The Pilgrim’s Progress operate are quite similar: both are told exclusively through metaphor, and both are about a journey to connect with God from a place of materialistic destruction. Bunyan’s novel and Malick’s film work with dream logic where every character the protagonist encounters is a guide, either leading him astray or closer to the destination.
Written in 1678 by the Protestant John Bunyan under the full title The Pilgrim’s Progress from this World to that which is to Come; Under the Similitude of a Dream, the brief novel is split into two parts: in the first, Christian journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City; and in the second, his wife and children take the same trek after Christian has already left. Malick’s film is heavily influenced by the first part of the novel, where its protagonist Rick’s journey is remarkably similar to that of Christian.
In one part of The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian describes the dangers of the City of Destruction: “you dwell, said he, in the City of Destruction, the place also where I was born, I see it to be so; and dying there, sooner or later, you will sink lower than the Grave, into a place that burns with Fire and Brimstone: be content, good Neighbors, and go along with me.”
The Celestial City is the antithesis: a place of eternal riches, of direct connection with God, a place that will never pass away. Christian’s physical journey is an allegory for the journey of Christian life from the concerns of this world—money, earthly pleasures, and material possessions—to somewhere that won’t pass away. Rick’s pilgrimage is the same, except Malick has adapted the text to the unique signifiers and form that he has developed since Badlands.
For example, in the first shot, after an unknown voice reads the title and first few lines of Bunyan’s novel over the opening credits, Rick is seen against a bulldozed wasteland with no vegetation, only mushy and leveled sand. The beauty of creation, the means through which Malick’s characters connect to the transcendent God, has been destroyed. As Malick cuts away, Rick reappears on a Hollywood rooftop party. It is essential to interpret these images beyond their surface messaging. In between shots, Rick didn’t literally move from this wasteland to his apartment; instead Malick materializes an immaterial mental state, making thoughts images and images thoughts. By representing something tangible, Malick has reached total abstraction.
Thus, Rick’s journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City is traced from these “mental state shots” of barren landscapes to images of a place in which greenery sprouts and lakes flourish abundantly. By examining the metaphors that Malick uses to represent this pilgrimage, we can see him commenting on capitalist culture at large and portending its forthcoming demise.
Post-modern culture and the struggle to find a coherent identity therein is a part of what Malick sees as a destructive tendency. “You see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible. You can be anything. Do anything. Start Over. You don’t.” When Rick is in a Hollywood boardroom, a group of screenwriters discuss changing a story and character by modifying a scene, moving its position, and thus altering someone’s entire being. Our lives have become like these movies, merely synthetic copies of copies. Everything is in flux.
Later in the film, when Rick is at a strip club, his earlier narration is echoed when a stripper says, “it changes every day. I can be whatever I want to be.” In this world there is no truth, authenticity or coherent identities, only layers of simulacra. During one sequence, a woman dances and copies the movements on a screen: a model with misplaced body parts peels layers off herself, attempting to grasp at something underneath. People are emulating the images they’re exposed to, and the images are already representations of people who have no sense of who they are.
The chaos of copies of originals that are themselves deformed copies is reflected in the entire environment of the film: cars dizzyingly travel across the city, bouncing around like a ball in a pinball machine with no way out. When Rick begins to have some kind of awakening—represented through natural and serene environments—he travels to an art gallery with timeless and seemingly dimensionless white walls. In the featured installation, plastic cars zip around an elaborate track, endlessly spinning around in circles. The world that promises satisfaction in materialistic and hedonistic pleasures is reduced to a small plastic art piece. It’s equally chaotic, but the purposelessness, lifelessness and unsatisfying promises of the material world are here revealed.
A still shot of water, evoking a pure connection with a deity, is tainted and destroyed by material excess. When the camera pans to the left, the water is revealed to be surrounded by yachts. Later in the film, this same body of water is dirty and contaminated. Where the first instance had beauty and the promise of satisfaction, the second shot shows the entire synthetic construction beginning to collapse: the fantasy revealed as such. Another image—one of Rick’s lovers stands in front of a painted sky—evokes a similar notion: that Rick is immersed in a dream-world, not the real thing, not the same sky that we have seen Malick’s characters twirl and dance under many times before. Describing Rick, the woman says over narration about him, “you don’t want love; you want a love experience.” This is also highlighted in how Rick experiences nature: distorted and mediated. When Rick goes to an aquarium, the fish are either plastic replicas or artificially contained in a tank, swimming to a light they will never reach.
But this ungrounded world appears to be facing an impending end. After an earthquake, when Rick puts his ear to the ground, the insides of the earth sounds as if it is about to burst open with hellish fire. Economically, the excess of the world is becoming less sustainable (throughout the film minorities and the poor are seen cleaning and preparing for decadent parties). The streets are being overrun with the disenfranchised, homeless and deformed. People are becoming desperate, a fact attested to by the two men who break into Rick’s apartment. A revolution looms along with supernatural judgment.
Before the film settles into a calmer pace in its last twenty minutes, Rick goes to a strip club where he is locked in a cage. The pleasure based on material thrills, the fantasies created by post-modern images, and the lifestyle built on the exploitation of others is entrancing and hedonistic but a prison nonetheless. In this moment, as Rick is locked inside, the words of the man in the cage from The Pilgrim’s Progress immediately come to mind:
“For the lusts, pleasures and profits of this world; in the enjoyment of which I did then promise myself much delight; but now every one of those things also bite me, and gnaw me like a burning worm.”
The thing Rick is desperately seeking and missing is the same that all of Malick’s characters search for. It’s the same transcendence the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic form is trying to evoke: a satisfaction through a connection with an eternal God and a grasping of an immaterial salvation that is not of this world. The realization that comes through all of the director’s films, and especially in Knight of Cups, is the same discovery that Christian makes in The Pilgrim’s Progress: “Then I perceive it is not best to covet things that are now, but to wait for things to come.”
This line of thought is very platonic: that the things of this world are just cheaper copies of greater ideals, merely shadows projected on the wall of a cave. It’s also a distinctly Christian worldview, as demonstrated through the significance of the pilgrimage in Bunyan’s novel. Whether you agree with Malick’s philosophy or not, it’s hard not to admire his thematic and formal development. Knight of Cups feels like the end of a journey and an arrival at a pure, celestial state, a form of expression that he has been striving towards since his debut. Malick is at the heavenly gates of a brand new kind of cinema. It’s up to us to follow him.  


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