Malick, the greatest living American filmmaker, has never made the consistently good fully philosophical film that we know he’s quite capable of. I fear that unless he dumps the star actors, he never will. I suppose that beginning with the Thin Red Line (after a 20 year hiatus) he understandably exploited high-priced luvvies eager to embellish their resume with something artsy — so that Malick could actually have his films generously funded and distributed. The problem as I see it is that having a decent sized budget doesn’t necessarily mean Malick’s vision gets better articulated. Much like Herzog, his best work is done in spite of the financial constraints. The actors in his films from 1998 onwards either try too hard not to reflect their public persona and/or they are just too flat to carry the larger vision — there seems to be no middle ground. Because Malick is so deeply philosophical it occurred to me that he would be the ideal person to film a Walker Percy novel. There was talk of Wenders flirting with such a project. Speaking of Percy, it is quite clear why Catholics have, of late, been particularly fascinated by Malick’s work — and rightly so. Not surprisingly, if one is tone deaf to the sacred then Malick’s work does come over as pompous and pretentious. See the various discussions linked to below (in no particular order). I haven’t read Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy yet but check out the discussion of Malick’s philosophical journey here.
Malick studied philosophy as an undergraduate with Stanley Cavell, and briefly taught philosophy at the MIT. He then traveled to Germany in the mid 1960s to meet with Heidegger, and produced a scholarly translation of Vom Wesen des Grundes (The Essence of Reasons) in 1969. That same year, Malick abandoned philosophy to become a film-maker. A philosopher turned film-maker is a rare and fascinating creature, so we can readily understand Furstenau and MacEvoy’s confident claim that Malick clearly ‘transformed his knowledge of Heidegger in cinematic terms’ (2003, 175), a knowledge that came to fruition in his first feature, Badlands (1973), in Days of Heaven (1978), and of course in The Thin Red Line (1998).
The film seems to be fighting a losing battle to make sense of itself, to coalesce into a statement, to not fade away. This feels right. “Knight of Cups” is not a young man’s movie. It’s an old man’s movie. A philosophically engaged, beatific, starchild-as-old-man’s movie. The end is coming. What did it all mean? What else is there but sunlight, water, sex, laughter, sunlight? Why do people sneer when they hear questions like that? Why is it unacceptable to make films like “Knight of Cups,” which speak in the language of poetry, fables, dreams, calendar art, Tarot cards? Why is it banal, vacuous, naive, to hear Rick’s father assign redemptive meaning to “the light in the eyes of others”?