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Knight of Cups

March 11, 2016
Knight of Cups

I must admit, Terrence Malick is among the world’s least accessible filmmakers. In the last five years he has released three feature films — an unprecedented rate for the man who took a two-decade break — and each one has been more abstract and introverted than the last. The Tree of Life is probably the most straightforward, dealing with the moral growth of a boy growing up in 1950s Texas, and even it inspired waves of befuddled walk-outs. To the Wonder‘s exploration of this same moral sense as applied to human relationships garnered significantly less attention, and more consternation from the few who walked in unprepared. And now, in Knight of Cups, Malick’s theological wrestlings have turned downright gnostic.

The title suggests the tarot deck, where the Knight of Cups is usually interpreted as a person who brings ideas and opportunities. He is artistic and refined, amiable and intelligent, though constantly bored and in need of stimulation, easily discouraged. This seems to stand for Rick (Christian Bale), the rising Hollywood star at the center of the film. Reversed, as Rick appears on one of the promotional posters, the card suggests unreliability, recklessness, fraud, and false promises; this is a man who has trouble discerning the boundaries between truth and lies. What better job for a fabulist than movie acting, spinning yarns for a living.

Each chapter of the film is named for a card from the major arcana of the deck. These seem to represent different people in Rick’s life. The Moon shows her imagination through the manic-pixieish Della (Imogen Poots). The Hanged Man introduces us to Rick’s brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and father Joseph (Brian Dennehy), though it may actually represent another brother who seems to have died — as in The Tree of Life, likely a reference to Malick’s own brother. The Hermit is a playboy (Antonio Banderas) who throws a party at his palatial house, while Judgement is Rick’s ex-wife Nancy (Cate Blanchett), and so on. Each card has meanings in both natural and reversed positions, and the collection of them forms seeds of contemplation just like any tarot deal might.

But the reading list doesn’t nearly end with the tarot. Structurally, Malick builds Knight of Cups around John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a Christian allegory describing the transmigration of souls from this world to the next, much like other metempsychotic works from Egypt and Tibet. Maybe more famous is the ancient Greek tradition, wherein souls drank from the waters of the Lethe and forgot their lives from the material world.

Malick couples Bunyan’s allegory to the Hymn of the Pearl, from Syriac gnosticism, which inverts this Greek formula. The Hymn tells of a young man, the son of a king, sent by his father in the East to recover a pearl. But while on his travels the prince forgets his nature and his purpose. The king sends messengers after the prince, trying to remind him and return him to his rightful place. In the gnostic tradition, we are spiritual beings, trapped in the prison of this physical world, forgetful of our own divinity. And Malick renders Rick as this prince, our representative in the fallen world of the film’s Hollywood.

And all this is just a primer for the easy pass over Knight of Cups, given one viewing. I have every confidence that, like the rest of Malick’s work, I will continue to turn up more layers of meaning as I revisit this film. Malick’s team — including production designer Jack Fisk and now back-to-back-to-back Oscar winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki — are less making movies than they are rendering the evocative visual poetry he uses to underscore his deeply personal wrestling match with God, religion, and philosophy. I’d be surprised if it yielded up everything to even an ardent fan without asking that I struggle with it myself.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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