Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups is certainly is not a film for everyone—perhaps not even a film I’d recommend. This film is not one for someone looking to escape or for someone who needs to “get it.” But if you’re spiritually wandering, wondering what life is about, or are simply a lover of medium specificity—perhaps this is a film for you.
“Remember the story I used to tell you as a boy… It’s about a knight—a prince—who was sent out into Egypt to find a pearl at the bottom of the sea. But when the prince arrived, the people poured him a drink that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of the king. He forgot the pearl.”
Rick (Christian Bale), a screenwriter, wanders in the wake of tragedy—a brother has recently died. Rick’s brother throws blame to the father, Rick’s father throws blame to the children, Rick’s mother smiles and pretends to ignore the underlying tension. Rick does nothing. Arguments happen in the background, leaving only snippets of conversation to eek through the soundtrack. Rick is in a fog—the things around him are nothing, mean nothing, just like the empty studio back lot many conversations take place. He is searching for that pearl—only he has no idea what or where it is.
Knight of Cups is less of a story and more of an experience—a blur of memories and experiences as a man struggles to find meaning in a life that has been revealed to him as empty. A combination of Tarot and Christian symbolism, the film uses the specific aspects of its medium to tell the story. Such an imaginative collage of emotions and experiences could only exist in film; images weave in and out, combined with voice-over of Psalms and The Pilgrim’s Progress and a lush soundtrack filled with early 20th century nationalist work and Hanan Townshend’s minimalist compositions.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s beautiful, dreamlike cinematography paints the city of angels as an urban jungle, always looking from the top of building town as if looking down from the top of a tree. As Rick drives through Los Angeles, he passes billboards and advertisements which suggest to him some way to find meaning. And certainly, this is where he looks for it: in the materialistic, vacuous world of excess that is at the ready in Hollywood. He drinks, he sleeps with prostitutes, he goes to parties—but nothing can end the vacant stare with which he views the world. The film looks at the emptiness of the lavish, party-hard lifestyle Rick is living—but perhaps more poignantly it looks at the morning after, when there is nothing left but empty cups and hangovers.
In the meantime relationships form. From an ex-wife who serves as a physician for burn victims to the model who finds balance in her Buddhist worship to the stripper who embraces every childlike curiosity, each of these women have found meaning and direction while Rick is proven incapable. They all complain that he is not fully committed to the relationship, that he never lets them know what he is thinking. Once in every relationship the couple finds themselves at the beach—and while his partners jump and laugh and splash in the water, Rick stays on the shore.
At one point, he believes he has found his pearl in the form of a relationship with a married woman. But that is also torn away from him as he is pounded with the consequences that his own fears have created. For him a commitment would be a release, but he rejects anything permanent out of fear that it will be torn away. The impermanence of the montage reflects the impermanence of Rick’s life—no moment lasts because Rick can’t commit to it.
At one crucial point in the film, a Father in a cathedral preaches that suffering and trials should be viewed as a blessing from god. “To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself.” The film acknowledges the statement but more so acknowledges that words like these seem empty and trite when in the mire of existential doubt. A simple platitude brings no comfort when you’re flailing in the water and gasping for breath.
“He forgot he was the song of a king.” Rick is searching for the pearl but doesn’t know that’s what he’s searching for. He’s trying to return to his father—to god—but doesn’t know that’s where he wants to go.
Assigning meaning to this film seems to go against the spirit of it. Perhaps there are some who will find such abstraction pretentions—but the deeply personal emotions explored suggest something more pure in intent. The confusion of the story and the anguish explored and the overall lack of structure and focus on meditation do more justice to life experience than any banal story of redemption. Knight of Cups brings validation to the wandering and a hope that meaning might be possible in a seemingly meaningless world.