knight of cups

Knight of Cups

MPAA Rating: R | Rating: ★★★★½
Release year: 2016
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Spiritual Director: Malick

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun;

all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

(Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Knight of Cups is the book of Ecclesiastes put to film. I mean this in the best way possible. It is an exploration of all the delights this world offers, and the subsequent emptiness one experiences when chasing after the wind has gone on long enough. This numbness is experienced by both Rick (Christian Bale) and the audience viewing Terrence Malick’s latest semi-autobiographical film. Malick’s aesthetic of meandering cameras, esoteric narration, and the exploration of spiritual themes is overwhelming here, almost immobilizing. While previous films explored country fields and native forests, Knight of Cups is Malick’s most urban film, a vivid and thorough exploration of the Los Angeles landscape, its sprawling concrete and lights and insecure pride. Rick is a successful writer living in the City of Angels, indulging in all that this particular metropolis has to offer.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.

The film opens with a narration from Pilgrim’s Progress, the John Bunyan allegory about the spiritual journey of Christian. This sets the spiritual tone as primarily Christian, though the spirituality within Knight of Cups is a mixture of tarot, Buddhism, hedonism, and various other belief systems. There’s a story of a prince in search of a pearl who fell asleep and forgot about his quest and identity. Christian, the prince, the Knight of Cups–Rick is all of these, as well as a cipher for Malick’s own personal journey. This film, along with To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, feels the most autobiographical, as if the aloof filmmaker was working through his inner demons, his memories and spiritual wrestlings through actors and hovering cameras.

I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.

Della. Nancy. Helen. Karen. Elizabeth. Isabel. These are the names of the women who pass in and out of Rick’s life, the spiritual guides in Knight of Cups. He stares at them in earnestness, searching for some moment of catharsis beyond mere fleshly pleasure. But there is little in the way of catharsis in Knight of Cups; even in its more emotive moments, these affections are experienced in a daze. There’s something to be said about the male gaze as Rick constantly seeks out women to experience some sort of meaning; he stares at them with curiosity and wonder, along with sadness and despair. “You don’t want love; you just want a love experience,” claims one of the muses. “Dreams are nice, but you can’t live in them,” asserts another. Despite his desire to connect, he’s always at a distance, silent and searching. It’s difficult to discern whether these women are exploited and used as objects, both for Rick’s and the film’s purposes, or if they’re to be regarded with a sense of awe and holiness, a purity in the midst of the on-screen vulgarity. Scenes in dance clubs, Las Vegas, photo shoots, lavish parties, and a strip club all are juxtaposed with quiet images of intimacy in Rick’s apartment or luxury hotel rooms. Women play a significant role here, but it’s unclear whether Malick is intentionally exploring the Madonna-whore motif.

This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.

Knight of Cups feels like Malick’s interpretation of Walker Percy’s excellent novel The Moviegoer, a story about Binx Bolling, a young, apathetic man on a search for meaning as he wanders between movie theaters and brief affairs. (Christian Bale has said in interviews that Malick had him read Percy’s novel to understand Rick’s character):

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

This search is revealed to us not in narrative, but in images. While there’s a structure to the film based on various titles connected with tarot cards–The Moon, The Hanged Man, The Hermit–audiences looking for any sense of a traditional story will be disappointed, as this is Malick’s least-accessible film in terms of narrative arc. Rick’s father, in a narration about regret, defines damnation as, “The pieces of your life never to come together, just splashed out there.” Knight of Cups embraces this splashed aesthetic, offering us pictures dream-like in their incongruity and inscrutability. Helicopters. Dogs. Sandy beaches. Hands caressing a face. Windows and glass. A hand extended into the wind. Sunlight. The most common image in Knight of Cups is water; the ocean and swimming pools are viewed as a source of healing, renewal, baptism, and rebirth.

Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. 

God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.

In his search, Rick explores the world of tarot reading. The tarot card of the “Knight of Cups” has this meaning (from the Wikipedia entry):

If the card is upright, it represents change and new excitements, particularly of a romantic nature. It can mean invitations, opportunities, and offers. The Knight of Cups…is constantly bored, and in constant need of stimulation, but also artistic and refined. He represents a person who is amiable, intelligent, and full of high principles, but a dreamer who can be easily persuaded or discouraged. Reversed, the card represents unreliability and recklessness. It indicates fraud, false promises and trickery. It represents a person who has trouble discerning when and where the truth ends and lies begin.

A bored dreamer, a wandering artist easily persuaded and discouraged. False promises and empty fantasies. Troubles with discerning truth, reality, and meaning. All of these are in Knight of Cups, a maddening, fantastic, sordid spiritual meditation on the vanity of life and the necessity of wandering in one’s personal journey with God.

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

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