In the Major Arcana of tarot cards, the Knight of Cups has duplicitous meanings depending on how you draw it.
The Knight of Cups is a person who is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He 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. (Wikipedia)
Knight of Cups is the story of one man, but by the end you’ll realize the Knight of Cups is every person.
The entire scope of this film is a pilgrimage onto itself. At first glance, it takes us on a familiar journey through previously visited moralistic themes and messages that we have been inundated with. We know the platitudes and we’re very familiar with the lessons, but Knight of Cups is much more than its aesthetic skin.
We are transported to a world of desolation and despair but are given brief glimpses of happiness. The happiness is mostly in the form of observations since our main character’s quest is for the happiness he has only briefly experienced in his life. Surrounded by limitless natural beauty, both from the world and the people around him, he finds it hard to find love or anything equivalent to that feeling. There is a note of melancholy throughout the entire film, including the scenes that may appear to be joyous. This ever-present despair shrouds every situation, even the most potentially life-threatening, but never overshadows the film’s beauty.
Terrence Malick has dichotomized audiences and critics throughout his filmmaking career. Where some people see gorgeous cinematography combined with an intellectual or spiritually rich story, others see pretty images with vapid and empty insights. One thing everyone can agree on is that the dynamic visual style is always a magnificent asset to the film. With a cinematographer like Emmanuel Lubezki (The Revenant, Gravity) at the helm, there was never any question to the visual quality.
Terrence Malick is undeniably the Knight of Cups, but more than that he shows us how we are too. This may not be the look it the mirror Malick hopes it would be, but every part of it is relatable, even if only as an effective hyperbole. Malick presents what I can only assume is his own personal view of the world, and his own experience traversing it. As we have seen in his previous films, like Tree of Life, Malick is still very affected by the death of his brother, which mirrors the grief of the main character in this film.
Like most of Malick’s recent films, there is an element of patience required. As he will remind us, there is no such thing as instant satisfaction because the results are typically fruitless and fleeting. Instead, this film requires a surface knowledge of the allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress and the meanings behind specific tarot cards. Without this information, it would be easy to mistake Malick’s cinematic intention as frenetic and simplistic when it is clearly so much more thoughtful in its approach. Rick (Christian Bale), much like the everyman Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, goes through the film burdened by grief and other secular worries the world has forced on him. Every person he encounters adding more weight rather than removing some.
Malick uses great actors like Bale, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman and Brian Dennehy to create this continuous tension throughout the film. Any dialogue between characters is meaningless and often eclipsed by the reflective narration. It is meant to sound calming, soothing and above all, dispassionate. After all, the entire journey is for passion itself, it the form of some sort of heaven on Earth or heavenly bliss for the less religiously inclined. The frantic, scattered pacing is meant to mimic the progression of our lives and is meant to be a perfect contrast against the calming, steady narration that fluidly flows forth as a serene stream of consciousness.
The downfall of using so much symbolism and subtext is that not everyone will put in the effort to uncover it. Most people use film as an escapist form, looking to passively absorb the surface material through cinematic osmosis. Knight of Cups is about the world-weary traveler, but may prove too mentally exhausting for them to enjoy. Where many may see this film as a cup that’s half empty, I am more than happy to realize it is really half full.
Rating: ★★★★★★★ (7/10 stars)