Malik’s experimental ‘Knight of Cups’ tests viewers with torrent of images and sounds




A common composition technique for transcendent writing or art is “show, don’t tell.”

This means that as an author or artist, you should not ham-fistedly spell out every single detail or underlying theme for your audience; there must be room for interpretation in order for true beauty to blossom.

Terrence Malick takes this rule to the extreme in his new film “Knight of Cups.”

Working without scripted dialogue for his actors, Malick strives to create an atmosphere and mood all while not succumbing to the temptations of narrative filmmaking.

This initially makes “Cups” a stressful viewing.

It isn’t merely a stream of consciousness film; it’s a torrent.

Going into this film blind, the two-hour runtime feels like an onslaught of abstract images, eerie voiceover and an insane amount of untraditional camera movement.

“Cups” is divided into eight chapters, but it lacks any coherent structure. Malick is clearly aiming to make one of the most experimental films of all time, even more so than his acclaimed “The Tree of Life.”

Even that 2011 film had moments of some resemblance to your classic Hollywood movie.

Here, Malick throws all of those devices out the window and strives to play with film solely as a medium and art form.

While watching this for the first time, there’s immense pressure to figure everything out and understand Malick’s vision. It felt like I was playing catch-up for two hours.

“Cups” completely throws the viewer off guard, as characters barely speak directly to each other.

The film follows the journey of Rick (Christian Bale), but he rarely is heard unless his voice is off-screen. Most conversations are muted with one of the characters in the scene providing voiceover.

But this isn’t narration, and it’s often times a bit unrelated to the event at hand. It feels like poetry being read aloud, as opposed to a movie script.

Even this dialogue is vague and lofty to follow, as it often ends abruptly or fades into the background.

Malick opens “Cups” with Rick wandering through a desert in the western United States. He does not speak, but merely meanders about, clearly void of purpose.

We are met with a voiceover on the soundtrack, as the film cuts back and forth between Rick in the desert and shots of the Earth, its atmosphere and a glow reminiscent of the northern lights from outer space.

As he did with “The Tree of Life,” Malick is juxtaposing man with his place in the universe. Here, he uses this to call to mind existential crisis and its diminutive place within the grand scheme of time and space.

The voiceover lyrically tells the story of a prince from the east who is sent to the west by his father in order to find a sacred pearl.

While on his journey, the prince is seduced by those around him into drinking from a cup. This cup places the prince into a deep sleep, where he forgets that he is the son of the king on a quest for the pearl.

The king sends messengers and guides to remind the son of the quest, but they prove unsuccessful. 

It quickly becomes evident that this parable is a mirror for Rick’s life, as the entire film is infused with an absurd lucidity that only comes from a sleepwalk or half-drunken haze.

Rick is lulled into that exact state of sleep in his life as a screenwriter in Los Angeles.

He has given into the temptation of women, alcohol and an overall glut of every bodily desire imaginable.

However, he still feels the presence of the pearl, even if he is unaware of it. He longs for meaning and emotion.

As viewers, we see the messengers sent by his father, but Rick is still blind to these attempts at waking him up from his life of excess.

Rick wanders around the empty sets for the movies he has written. He helped create these worlds, but they feel hollow and lifeless as he drifts among the façade of a city.

He attends lush and lavish parties in Hollywood mansions.

Brilliantly, Malick throws in real-life celebrities throughout these and other scenes, giving them little to no dialogue.

Usually, these actors and actresses show up for less than a few subtle moments. Everyone from Fabio to Nick Kroll to Nick Offerman makes an appearance.

These celebrities themselves are just barely recognizable enough that it makes the viewer do a double-take. It almost feels like your mind is playing tricks on you, only adding to the abstract and dreamy atmosphere within the world of “Knight of Cups.”

It is nearly impossible to explore this world without seeing the drips of Catholic religious symbolism.

Malick constantly uses images of water and glimpses of children to hint at a baptism and a rebirth. Rick even looks Christ-like with his long hair and beard as he comes face-to-face with his temptation in the desert, and he is recurrently referred to as the “Son.”

While the pearl he searches for is left undefined, it is clear that it is a form of salvation. Rick wants to find purity and goodness within the secular worlds that he frequents in L.A. and Vegas.

He searches for this vessel of goodness through six different women. Whether he is aware of it or not, each of them is desperately urging Rick to wake up from his “sleep.” The words “wake up” are even whispered on the soundtrack multiple times.

Rick is in a state of perpetual motion without any real progress. His state alludes to the question of whether a parent would rather have his/her child grow up to be either rich, smart, happy or good. Rick is clearly smart and rich, as evidenced by his screenwriting job. He enjoys his wealth, the women at his disposal and the endless partying. Undoubtedly, he’s happy on some level. But without a goodness and purity, Rick is empty, lost and trapped. Until he wakes up and finds the pearl, he will not be free.

Naturally, a film of this nature straddles the line between revelation and absolute pretentiousness. There is so much to unpack and it can feel a bit over-stuffed. At times, it does feel ostentatious and self-serving.

Still, the beauty with which “Cups” is filmed in undeniable, most notably an underwater shot of a dog desperately snapping its jaws at a tennis ball and a chew toy.

Even if this were a 15-second clip on the Internet, it would be an awe-striking moment. Taken within the context of the entire film, it becomes a brilliant allusion to Rick and his pearl.

The film’s glory lies within the vastness Malick is able to create not only while shooting landscapes, but primarily through his intense close-ups of human faces and the rest of the seemingly mundane world around them.

The film itself becomes a quest, as we search for the clarity and existential understanding within Malick’s vision.

This is ill-fated. We are meant to feel and experience “Knight of Cups,” not necessarily comprehend every little action within its narrative.