Knight of Cups

Vanity[b] of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
    at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1: 1-4)

                Anything written and directed by Terence Malik is bound to be non-linear.  And this one definitely is.

                Rick (Christian Bale) is the main character, and he spends a lot of time by himself, wandering in isolated stretches.  Even the big city seems to be mostly empty whenever he’s wandering in it, as if he’s so determined to be alone with his introspection that he doesn’t notice others that much.  Except maybe the occasional homeless person, who doesn’t seem any more dispossessed than he does.

                “Knight of Cups” is really a series of seemingly disconnected images that defy sequence, so there’s no discernible plot, either.  Oh, there are some remarkable people who come to fill up the screen:  most notably Cate Blanchett (who seems to be an old flame) and Natalie Portman (where the relationship seems more contemporary, but still failed).  In the end, we’re back to Rick, wandering off by himself again.  Maybe looking at clouds.  Or passing cars.  Or mannequins in a shop window.  Or trees rustling in the breeze.  Or people swimming.

                Rick, being a handsome young man, appears to have no shortage of beautiful women filling his visual screen.  In fact, he seems to be welcome at fashion photography shoots, where skinny lovelies pose unceasingly.  Rarely does anybody say very much.  His brother appears, obviously distraught about things, arguing with their father, who seems to be more an apparition than a real presence.  But every adult male carries within him images of his father, because, for better and for worse, that’s the primary relationship that forged his own male identity.

                Rick often gets philosophical, but not really whimsical.  He says he feels like he’s looking in the ocean for that one valuable pearl, and hasn’t yet found it, which seems to be code for he really hasn’t found any fulfilling purpose to his life.  He talks vaguely about needing to go from the darkness to the light, which sounds remotely religious, and there are even some random quotes from the Psalms, delivered in somebody else’s sonorous overdub, but they, too, disappear from the screen quickly, like all the other fleeting images.  There seems to be some obsession with helicopters, as if just hovering over everything, never landing, like Rick.  And some practiced fascination with the empty, open road (usually falling away very rapidly). 

                If the idea is that we’re supposed to feel Rick’s disconnectedness, then it’s working.  But in the screening I attended, many walked out, and some laughed out loud at the end, as if punctuating the ludicrousness of trying to make any sense of it all.  Which may be precisely the life lesson that Terence Malik wishes to teach us here.

Questions for Discussion:

1)                   45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, 46 who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it. “(Matthew 13). What is your “pearl of great price”?

2)                  Do your memories sometimes flash by in your mind like disconnected images?  More so as you get older?

3)                  The Knight of Cups is a tarot card. Do you think its symbolism of the knight wanderer is important to understanding the film?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association