‘Knight of Cups’ Deserves a Second Look

Terrence Malick's deeply Christian film examines love, family and so much more

If you asked me to name the three best love movies ever made I’d choose, “Casablanca,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and “Knight of Cups.”

I watched “Knight of Cups” again this week, maybe for the tenth time. I’m always amazed,
like with any great work of art, that I pick up something new every time I view it.

It’s a different kind of movie and not everyone’s cup, if you will. It’s more like dance. There’s a lot of physical
movement on screen that represents a language of its own, a kind of body poetry, it’s also more like art, you take away what you bring into it.

Knight of Cups Official Trailer #1 (2015) - Christian Bale, Natalie Portman Movie HD

The symbolism is powerful: water, desert, sky, fire, cliffs and ledges, crosses, roofs, pools, money, art and beauty.

Director Terrance Malick is most certainly a Christian, and this might be his most gospel-like movie yet. The symbols, cuts and voice overs over voice overs are meant to disorient you, confuse you, turn you into a pilgrim lost on a trail.

To my mind it’s up there with “The Razor’s Edge” in terms of exploring the spiritual journey, but “Knight of Cups” specifically focuses on family and erotic love. How relationships can be both distracting from your spiritual journey, sometimes pulling you far off course. They also, paradoxically, provide you something of value in exchange at the same time.

Pema Chödrön talks about how others and our reactions to them provide endless opportunities to learn and grow; that begs the question: given our nature of projection do we ever truly see anybody for who they really are?

Is “Hell is other people” as they say, are “others” just highly paid extras in the grand drama of our lives, as David Whyte would ask, or something else?

I believe we honestly connect with others. I believe in love and that love is the emotion of non-duality, I believe we are here for each other… but I also believe we’re human and can be selfish, small minded and cruel towards each other.

That love, sex and relationship are three different animals (great when together) and that even consummate love (passion + friendship + commitment) can’t possibly last. People will come and go from your life. Nothing is forever.

The movie is built around these two rally points:

  • “A young man’s struggles? Ambition and fear!”
  • “You must find your way from darkness to light!”

And as we go on that journey with Christian Bale’s Rick from darkness to light, as he wrestles with ambition and fear, we encounter all kinds of people and lessons. Here are just a few notes on what I find in the movie:

The High Priestess (Theresa Palmer) — “Nobody cares about reality anymore” life is a game, a play, fantasy, illusion, make of it what you wish (existentialism).

Knight of Cups Movie CLIP - You Live in a Little Fantasy World (2016) - Christian Bale Movie HD

Death (Natalie Portman) — “Love’s so rare that when you find it you can’t doubt it.” “So this is what we are? A fire!” Their true love begins and end with betrayal, her cheating on her husband, then an abortion. Love is about betrayal, abandonment, rejection, humiliation and ultimately redemption. These are the stations of our own particular cross, stages of grief in our relationship with God, what we accuse God of doing to us and what we have to reconcile within ourselves.

Judgment (Cate Blanchett)  “I don’t want to accuse you, but you turned unkind towards me,” “Just don’t threaten me with leaving.” Rick’s empty life compared to a Christ-like life of his ex-wife who cares for the sick and the poor. Just as we turn towards love, we turn from it as well.

The Sun (Freida Pinto) — “I don’t want to wreck havoc in men’s lives anymore” the goddess Kali, destroyer of worlds. She’s enlightened enough to own her own power and not willing to play games anymore.

The Moon (Imogen Poots) — “I think you’re weak” “you don’t want love, you want a love experience.” She sees none of Rick’s charm or strength, a woman who sees through the B.S. and doesn’t like what she sees. This kind of woman is maybe the most important on the journey. She doesn’t buy any of it. Rick is exposed and destroyed by her clarity. Those are the main romantic relationships, but the other relationships are just as important on the journey.

  • Brother #1 — denial/drugs/addiction
  • Brother #2 — suicide
  • Dad — looking for respect, the tragic but important lesson of aging and losing your power, what you sacrificed for fades in importance
  • Las Vegas — the siren song of materialism
  • L.A. Party — the gilded allure of fame and wealth
  • Model Shoot — soulless beauty
  • Zen Master — basic Buddhist principles
  • Catholic Priest — life is suffering, suffering is God’s gift
  • Tarot Reading — the power and emptiness of symbolism
  • Earthquake — that it’s all an illusion
  • The Tower — money corrupts

In many ways we have to transcend love, sex, family in order to grow deeper in our relationship with God. I think “Knight of Cups” reflects this truth. It really is a remarkable movie and worth the time to watch for the first time or revisit.

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