A Journey Of A Man Who Has Lost His Way…

Knight_of_Cups posterTerrence Malick’s new film, Knight of Cups, is a gorgeous ocean of urban beauty washing in and out like the ocean tide that features so prominently in a story that is not for the faint of heart.  Malick continues his spiritual journey reflected so prominently in the lives of his protagonists, especially his last film, To the Wonder.  Like To the Wonder, Malick mainly relies on audible inner dialogue and narration to push the story forward, and less on traditional dialogue between his characters.  Time is not necessarily linear in these sort of films. It is often more about the tapestry being woven than any particular resolve of conflict.  Malick is on a journey, yet very rarely arrives at a destination.

Knight of Cups is an allusion to a Tarot card, which depicts a romantic adventurer guided by his emotions [1].  It also refers to a story told to a young child about a knight, who was tasked by his father, the king, to journey into a world looking for a valuable pearl.  The knight drunk of the cups of pleasure in this world and slowly fell asleep, forgetting that he was a child of the king.  And even though the king never gave up on him, even sending him messages into this new world, the knight continued to sleep, giving himself over to the pleasures and false reality of the new world as he forgot his true identity and purpose.

Christian Bale plays Rick, who is becoming a major Hollywood player.  In the light of his wealth, material possessions, and position, Rick is truly lost. Like the book The Pilgrim’s Progress, the allegory is presented as a dream as our protagonist searches for meaning in an ultimately meaningless world. The film follows Rick through 6 periods of his life that mostly all involve different women as he tries desperately to find fulfillment and make the journey from darkness to light.

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Broken into “chapters”, the film begins with “The Moon” and Rick’s involvement with a rebellious woman named Della (Imogen Poots), before heading into “The Hanged Man” documenting his fractured relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley) and his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy).  Joseph’s words of advice from Rick’s childhood continue to haunt Rick throughout his journey but also serve as the driver for his desired redemption.  All three are morning the loss of their third brother and son, and each is dealing with their loss.  For Rick, his sleepwalk through his life of emptiness is much like the Knight in the story, who was the son of the king.  Rick can’t seem to wake up and remember his identity and purpose.

The chapters continue and bring Rick into encounters with a rich variety of individuals who all seem to be trying to fill their similar emptiness in different ways.  Tonio (Antonio Banderas) is an aging playboy who can’t seem to stop chasing women and encouraging others to do the same.  We meet Helen (Freida Pinto) who longs for friendship above Rick’s desires for sexual fulfillment only.  Karen (Teresa Palmer) is a stripper from Australia who takes Rick on a journey of fun through Los Angeles and Vegas.

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The two most substantive relationships involve the two biggest stars in the film, besides Bale.  Unfortunately they have very little screen time, especially compared to the two significant relationships in Ben Affleck’s story in To the Wonder, which were Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko.  Here, it is Cate Blanchett as Rick’s ex-wife Nancy, and Natalie Portman as Elizabeth, a married woman that Rick falls for in the past.  Nancy, haunts him as she is really a saint of a woman, who serves as a physician, and who loves him still.  Elizabeth loves Rick as a distraction of her own marriage, but is unable to commit to Rick, especially in light of some complications that arise in their relationship.

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The true wonder of Knight of Cups is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki who has worked on such films as GravityBirdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)The Revenant, and who served as Director of Photography on To the Wonder and The Tree of Life for Malick.  Each scene is a lush landscape, capturing a rich variety of beauty from mountainous deserts to urban streets.  Water is a constant component throughout the film with the ocean ebbing and flowing in and out of many scenes much like the narrative.  Water serves as a form of baptism as Rick finds himself retreating to it as well as using it to pursue whatever might satisfy his emptiness.  Lubezki’s camera is mesmerizing and captures every detail of our journey, especially the mundane details, and observations that we miss, but could notice if only we truly had eyes to see.

This film will not be for everyone, and anyone who does not like the impressionistic narrative which offers no real path forward, the fragmented character development, and attempts of using cinematography to present the scenes of Rick’s life as more illusion than a reality of the actual story will find little to like here.  In fact, if you are not a Malick fan, particularly if you didn’t like To the Wonder, then you may outright hate this film.  That is alright.  This film is not really for everybody. It is not a traditional 3-arc story line, and Rick lives such a privileged life that many will not relate to his existential view of a world of meaninglessness in his quest for living authentically.  Rick is truly the romantic adventurer of the Tarot card, leading with his emotions.  He is also the knight who has forgotten his identity and calling to find the pearl of great price.

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“Once the soul was perfect and had wings and could soar into heaven…” says the narrator describing a perfect existence before the fall.  But the narration goes on to say, spurred on by John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, that the place where our wings once were are still there giving way to flight.  Terrance Malick shows us the man who has forgotten his identity and purpose in the midst of the great distraction of our common pursuit for fulfillment and amusement in our modern world.  A lonely priest reminds us that suffering isn’t a burden sent by God to weigh on us and break us, but to reconnect us to the notion that we must find our salvation from beyond ourselves and our world, and is therefore a gift that reconnects us to the heart of God.

Malick, through the use of narration and inner dialogue, reminds us that we are children of the king, sent into this world in pursuit of a pearl of great price, and he encourages us to continue to wake up and make the journey from the darkness of our current life to the light from whence we came.  Knight of Cups is another step in Malick’s spiritual journey, washing in on the shoreline, and being made clean with the disappearance of the tide as we all struggle to reconnect with what was lost, and find our true identity and purpose.


[1] Description taken from www.theknightofcupsmovie.com/story