This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Wesley R. Ball’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
The following is a rhetorical essay for my college composition class on Josh Lasser's review of Knight of Cups for IGN.com. You can read Lasser's review (in which he awarded the film a score of 4.0/10) here.
This review will contain a few small excerpts from my previous review, but it largely consists of new material. It is also a rough draft, edits will be needed and made later.
What kind of world do we live in where Christopher Nolan is hailed as one of the most original and visionary directors of the 21st century, and Terrence Malick is labeled a boring hack who doesn’t know what he’s doing with his films? I don’t hate most of Nolan’s films, but Interstellar is really simply a modern retelling of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with poorly written dialogue and terrible sound mixing), and Inception is essentially a live action rendition of the anime feature film Paprika. Again, I’m not strictly saying that Nolan’s films are bad. But compared to Terrence Malick’s uniquely original works, I have to begin questioning whether or not I am watching the same films as other moviegoers are. Josh Lasser of IGN Entertainment, a men’s magazine website that mainly reports on and reviews films and video games, wrote a scathing review of Knight of Cups, in which he labeled it as a “frustrating experience.” While I can sympathize with mainstream audiences who may find themselves confused with their first experience in a modern Terrence Malick film, it really takes more than one simple viewing to fully experience what Malick has to offer.
Mainstream audiences are typically frustrated when a film lacks any cohesive narrative or a lot of dialogue to explain what is happening on the screen (which is why Robert Eggers’ The Witch was so panned by audiences when it went into wide release). However, Terrence Malick is one of the rare filmmakers who manages to find a beautiful narrative in the essence of nature, choosing to allow the pictures that his camera captures to tell the stories instead of his characters. The characters that populate his modern films purposefully avoid direct contact with the camera and audience in order to provide a unique sensory experience. For Malick films, it’s not necessarily a cohesive narrative that dominates the story, it’s the individual experience and what each viewer chooses to turn their own experience into.
Lasser notes that Knight of Cups focuses on Christian Bale (playing a screenwriter named Rick) wandering through Los Angeles and his “inability to form a healthy and long-lasting relationship… simply trying to find his way amid a myriad of issues and with a plethora of women.” The one thing that the review never mentions is that Knight of Cups is actually a modern-day reworking of Pilgrim’s Progress. Rick and his wandering travels through the decadent culture of Los Angeles partially mirrors Christian’s own journey in the classic novel, as he faces many different trials and temptations that ultimately would leave him feeling unsatisfied. These relationships that Rick cultivates throughout the plot are clear mirrors of some of the hallmark portions of the Pilgrim’s Progress, and even the style in which the film’s plot is divided into different sections is remarkably similar to the original book. For instance, the first chapter, titled “The Moon,” has Rick encounter a rebellious woman named Della, who chooses to indulge in the illustrious riches that the world has to offer instead of striving for something greater than herself. This character is clearly a personification of the original novel’s own Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who tries to lure Christian into relying on the legal ethics of the world to relieve himself of the great burden he carries. This “burden” that Christian carries in Pilgrim’s Progress is carried over to Knight of Cups as a hollow feeling inside Rick that causes him to constantly wander around the city. The burden is shown in the film as ultimately a feeling of dissatisfaction and contempt for the things of the world, but Rick is unsure of what he should be striving for. The big difference between Knight of Cups and Pilgrim’s Progress is that Christian knew precisely what he was striving for, whereas Rick was experiencing an existential midlife crisis. Terrence Malick transitions the “burden” of sin from the original book to make the character’s plight more relatable to modern secular audiences, and the empty feeling that Rick harbors throughout the film ends as the primary cause of his wandering journey.
One of the biggest issues with Lasser’s review of Knight of Cups is that he seems so confused and frustrated by the overall experience that he doesn’t seem to know how to exactly put his feelings down into words. He notes that there is extensive use of voiceover narration and interior monologue, but he is always unsure of exactly what the words that are being spoken are referring to. To quote the original review directly, “Maybe what the voiceovers indicate are Rick's thoughts, or the thoughts that he would have a character have in the same situation issue, or maybe they are the thoughts of the individual with Rick, but they are entirely unsaid. Maybe they're the memories of things unsaid. Again, there is no answer on how to correctly interpret these things.” Here, Lasser appears to be just as confused as many modern cinema audiences are with new Malick films. He ruminates that there is essentially no direct answer to what he saw in the film, but Malick’s film isn’t supposed to have a cohesive story or narrative. Again, if the author had been aware that Knight of Cups was a modern retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress, perhaps he would have been more privy to what was happening on screen. In reality, Malick is trying to show a beautifully complex moral tale of the vanity of the things of Earth, and how we are meant to strive for something greater beyond this life. Rick’s wanderings and musings are meant to be a personal reflection for the character to showcase his journey towards a better life, but that doesn’t mean that Malick necessarily has to spell out his entire plot in black and white. People who are more familiar with Terrence Malick’s films are aware that he does not typically utilize a narrative structure that alerts the audience to everything that is happening, but rather, he artistically portrays his story in a near wordless fashion. Yes, there is plenty of dialogue in the film, but it is mostly meant to give the audience an inside look at what is going on in Rick’s mind and the people around him. It showcases his doubts and concerns about what he is really doing with his life, and ultimately leads us along his great journey towards a more meaningful existence.
Lasser complains that Knight of Cups insists multiple viewings and dissections, but that there is so little in the way of story that there is almost nothing to start conversations about. This is the most alarming criticism of this review, because the truth is that there is so much packed into the 119 minute runtime that I could write about it almost all day and not be finished with what I have to say. The crisis of existentialism that Rick experiences in the film and the way he ruminates on his past relationships and experiences is like a more straightforward mirror of what is shown to us in one of Malick’s older films The Tree of Life. The Tree of Life had a single character reflecting on his past experiences as a child and how a single devastating experience changed his family forever. In a sense, Knight of Cups examines this domino effect to a much greater extent, questioning the very basic meaning of life and what Rick is meant to do. Instead of focusing on a single childhood experience, Rick wanders through his decadent lifestyle as an adult and wonders what he really has done with his life. In a way, Malick is criticizing the Hollywood lifestyle for overindulging in vain glory and worldly possessions. Perhaps he is even making a subtle commentary on how so many people choose to ignore his films, which are more complex and substantial in their artistic merit than most, if not all, Hollywood productions, in favor of overinflated blockbusters like Batman v. Superman. The fact that Lasser chooses to completely throw away the complex story hidden underneath the seemingly vapid pace and story in Knight of Cups seriously makes me wonder if we even watched the same film. Lasser’s criticisms mainly appear to be directed at the quiet nature of the interior monologues that hallmark the film and the wandering examinations that the film makes. He notes that the film feels more like a “sham” than a meaningful conversation piece, and that the film feels “purposefully obtuse” in its presentation. The truth is that Knight of Cups is not meant to be completely understood and beloved on a first watch, but rather that repeat viewings of the film are meant to slowly cultivate a better understanding of the themes and commentaries present in the film. Perhaps Lasser should have watched Knight of Cups a second time before laying such harsh criticisms on the film, as it clearly is meant to garner examination and repeat viewings to fully digest.
Ironically, Lasser’s closing argument about why Knight of Cups is so bad is what I found to be the most intriguing element of the film. He states that the “dream-like quality winds up making the whole movie feel just as unsubstantial as one’s musings while asleep and ought to be forgotten just as quickly as dreams disappear upon waking.” The strongest quality I found in Knight of Cups was just how dream-like Terrence Malick made the film look. If he is meant to present the film as a scathing judgement on the decadence of Hollywood lifestyle, then what better way to present these views than to make the film look and feel like a dream? Rick wanders throughout Los Angeles like he is in a dream because that is the state that his decadent lifestyle has put him in. Being ultimately unsatisfied with the deeper meaning of his life, he has become disillusioned with the offerings of the rich lifestyle, and seeks out a better way of life. As he wanders, the camera and characters appear and feel like they are all part of a huge dream- a dream that many people need to wake up from, but sadly never do. The rich, decadent lifestyle that these characters lead in the film don’t lead to any real meaningful existence, according to Malick’s film, and they are stuck in a dream world where they believe they are elevated above everyone else. The concluding argument that Lasser makes regarding the dream-like quality of the film makes his entire review fall apart for me, personally, as it is so clearly the best quality and the main focus of the plot’s lesson.
Knight of Cups is filled with absolutely genuine creativity from Terrence Malick that Josh Lasser completely disregards in his review. The film ultimately deserves some deep consideration from serious fans of cinema before they choose to toss it aside as simply another form of pretension on Malick’s part. The dream-like trance that the pace and presentation give off are what truly make the film uniquely special to me, and the fact that the film is simultaneously a modern rendition of Pilgrim’s Progress and a commentary on the Hollywood lifestyle fascinates me to no end. Lasser’s review sadly chooses to completely gloss over these deeper realizations in favor of a general outline that never really delves into what the film is really about. Perhaps the writers of IGN should avoid reviewing films by Terrence Malick in the future, as their target readers (men aged 18-30) most likely won’t be remotely interested in what the film has to offer. Lasser’s harsh takedown of this film is a clear indication that these films are not fit for their readers.