Knight of Cups Movie Review

December 20, 2019

Mr. Malick has done it again. What I mean is that he has shifted his director’s eye toward another element of the human condition. Where before he might have been contemplating man’s role in the cosmos, here, he is much more down to Earth, pensively tasking to reveal the character of human freedom. Yet, Mr. Malick could have chosen any human subject that walks this Earth to tell such a narrative. Why, then, did he choose a screenwriter, and more so, the city of Angles as a supporting character?


What in other words, is being said when using just colors to paint the canvas? The immediate, visceral reaction is towards the nature of the dream factory and how it uses its cogs. No doubt there are many which not only wish to be as successful mechanical arm in the operations as their own raison d’etre – and no doubt the actual outcome of such an ambition does not raise higher than bare breasted beautiful young women frolicking in California weekend sun. Also, no doubt, it raises no higher than a greater-than-most square footage lot for shelter from the mild Mediterranean climate. Mr. Malick, then, uses his protagonist and his questioning to ask the plan but bold question: is there something more to life than this?


I’m beginning to detect a pattern in the filmmaker’s last three films, which all are as ambitiously spiritual works as cinema has ever crafted. Note, however, I am not implying religious. And it is no accident religion is completely absent amidst the hustle and bustle of these minor characters on life’s stage. Their aims, in other words, reach no higher than the hopes and dreams of those who struggle in life and what nothing more than the security of a warm meal. This is always associated with the goal of obtaining riches. Money. Cash. Moola.


With the protagonist, however, we can already sense he was never a part of this group identity that makes up the unique intersection of creatives and industrial-capitalist production that is Hollywood. His sheltered space is quite modest – even armed burglars lament at how barren he lives his life, when most assuredly they targeted him because of who he is. He brushes shoulders with his tribesmen, but always at a distance. He shares their troubled commonalities of evanescent strife, as example his complicity in adultery, beset because they create no values for how they should lead their lives.


I summon Nietzsche’s aristocratic radicalism and his Last Man meditation here most appropriately to help make this film more understandable.  Most appropriately then, the newly-minted well-monied have no intrinsic spiritual dimension to them, which would provide them a sense of purpose and self-satisfaction. Not to say all have such anxiety as the protagonist – he is a rare exception for which we have no explanation for only that it is his in his nature to be seeking the wonder – as the film portays many satisfied with what they have sought to attain for themselves. It is simply that, what they seek is material and will change if not decay over time. As Nietzsche condenses, the aristocratic class of society rises above such pursuits – they strive for Plato’s Good, and what is the essence of Platonic philosophy, to live one’s life toward the eternal reality and not to the shapeshifting sights and sounds of the present. The present, in other words, is always changing; the protagonist’s sideshow characters would in another era be lusting after parallel but not identically eternally meaningless qualities. Their values in other words, are small. The aristocrats tyrannize the world with their affirmation of what The Good is – after all Plato was a member of the nobility and he still casts down his words from on high -, and what it means to be a good human being. Alas, such obligations cannot be found contemporaneously, because they return nothing immediately material and pleasurable. This is the crisis of capitalism.


And yet, is it all bad? Must we be so impertinent towards enjoying the good things in life? The film does not scorn material goods per se, only materialism – which the highest ends of mankind are found in the highest forms of being primates.  The crisis of capitalism, however, is more fully formed in how one should lead one’s life; of confronting the necessary uncertainty of reality with one’s free will. Again, it is mediocre to paint as a target something admirable toward others in society, or wealth and fame.


While still a challenge, it is nonetheless safely mediocre. And by safe, I mean the accomplishments have a guaranteed value to the person. Living towards an ideal, however, created by oneself, which has no conception in the reality of human imagination until birthed by the man seeking to fulfill it, it arduous. It is this spectrum between nobility and mediocrity, of comfort and danger, which every human soul is born into and must decide on his own how to navigate. This is, after all, the central issue of the film – once the modest goals of wealth and status are achieved, why does the protagonist seek something higher? Because, as mentioned, there is emptiness and a missing sense of purpose and completeness to his life, which well-designed architecture and beautiful women can never fully nourish. He has nothing outside of him which demands him to take on a spiritual duty of raising mankind higher; and while he has some sense of a spirit within him, it is not strong enough to move him to transcend the values of his society.


A final note on the cinematic technique of Mr. Malick which spawns theatrical “walkers” or those who walk out because they receive nothing from his films – very much consistent with Malick’s own philosophy of imploring to lead a life beyond man, he does not wish his audience to scrutinize and interrogate every single frame presented, but to simply sit immersed and simmer in his two hour stew which accomplishes something beyond the what one single shot can depict. Thus, he is iconoclastic compared to the cultural endowment of what film structure is supposed to be with many finding his work jarring if not confusing because of their acculturation. With Malick, one is supposed to sit back, relax, and take in the vista. To attackingly project any rationality to the scenes will lead one to be exhausted and defeated.


Grade: A+


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