Kurdt’s review published on Letterboxd:
Malick’s films are total absorption, you get lost in them and you come out the other side either numb from simply seeing cinematographic bliss yet not finding an emotional reverie to drink from, or you feel an incipience building from the very beginning and feel your soul get punctured for two hours. That sounds ostentatious, many reviewers ramble on about how films ‘changed their life’ or that they’d name their child after a character, but it’s hard to deny the impact this had on me. When you sit perfectly still in the same position, your legs cramping but you don’t care, pins and needles shooting up your veins but you don’t care, eyes straining from the transcendent light emitting from the screen filling your black-as-flies room but you don’t care, it’s hard not to say you’ve seen something special. While I appreciated To The Wonder yet failed to truly connect with it, Knight Of Cups pulled me in and never let go of my throat, in a half-violent half-soothing way. The film would tease me with it’s vivid cinematography and impressionistic style, creating a beautiful ambience before dichotomising that with the rawest of themes regarding empty existence and the search for true happiness.
While there’s no use in attempting to pick apart a Malick film since a) it’s so dense or b) there’s no need to try since it’s an impressionistic tone poem reliant on your personal connection to the experience in general, I’m going to do it anyway since I wrote a lot of notes straight after and don’t want them to go to waste:
In the opening narration, we hear the story of a king sending his son - the prince - to search for a pearl in a foreign land. The king likely a representation of a god or simply fate and his son being each of us. The pearl I saw as being the meaning of life, or at least the personal meaning of life for all of us searching for true happiness in exchange for the hollowness felt within. The pearl is to be found in the sea and is protected by a hissing serpent (sin/debauchery), but the prince is seduced by the serpent and is put to sleep, awaking having forgotten of his search and that he is even a prince. We forget that life’s a gift, thus any idea of being a prince is lost on us. Christian Bale’s Rick, our cipher, ostensibly finds success in life but it’s completely hollow. His life is filled with falseness since he’s a Hollywood writer and even literally walks through giant movie sets and he attempts to fill the void within him with compassionless sexual encounters with faceless women that dance ephemerally through his life. His world is filled with dysphoria. He has brief glimpses of his search for ‘the pearl’ (the shots of death valley) but can’t comprehend what he’s seeing. He reminisces over, and discovers true love with different women, framed much more lovingly than the faceless women he simply sleeps with, and thinks that this is what will give his life purpose and meaning, someone to share it with. But alas love fades, and these romances fall away, turn to ashes, and he’s continually left with the void inside him. Burglars break into his home but they have nothing to take since he’s so hollow. “Don’t go back to being dead” but he will, we all will. He’s been constantly running from the suicide of his brother (the POV driving shots early on) which he’s tried to liquidate from his mind through his Hollywood lifestyle, but as each romance fails and the hollow nothingness remains, he begins heading towards his brother’s fate rather than attempting to escape it (the final shots of death valley return, and the car now driving towards his brother). We all run from death, fighting it our whole lives, yet Malick surmises that the only way to truly find the ‘pearl’ is through death, which holds all the answers. We (Rick) are stuck on an inexorable journey towards death that we must accept to find true meaning in our lives. Whether that means Rick in the final shots is simply choosing to ‘escape’ his life through whatever means or maybe more likely ‘escaping’ through killing himself and joining his brother is not clear, but to me the film has a rather lugubrious message - that we’re doomed to search for ‘the pearl’ our whole lives yet the journey is doomed from the start since our goal is unattainable. Rick and his lovers all embrace the water that wash over Malick’s film, attempting to be reborn like a baptism, yet the only true way to be reborn is through death.
That’s how I perceived the film anyway. The beauty of Malick’s work is that it has no need to become didactic with it’s themes and ideas and simply lets the viewer bleed their own experiences and emotions into the film naturally, creating a vastly different experience for each of us. Obviously there’ll be many who despise this and label it pretentious but for me, it was an experience and one I’ll surely return to. And I’m also thankful that art like this is still being created in cinema. It won’t always come off as well as Knight Of Cups but anyone even attempting to create something this impressionistic and personal deserves praise in my book.