Knight of Cups, the newest film by reclusive auteur Terrence Malick, is a sumptuous sensory journey. Through montage, music, and overlapping dialogue and voiceover, the film creates an emotionally resonant sense of experience that requires no extended knowledge beyond the human spirit to understand. However, there is a deeper level of understanding that can be gleaned from an investigation into the meaning of the tarot cards that give the movie and its subsequent chapters their names.
What follows is a reading of the movie through the lens of what is being expressed in each of the tarot card names presented in the film — compiled with the help of my fiancée, Jess Selph, who is well-versed in many forms of the tarot. Don’t mistake this for an “explanation” of the film or an attempt to give the movie a definitive meaning. This is merely an interesting and hopefully insightful way to add more context to a film that expands and grows in personal meaning with every new bit of knowledge and experience that is attached to it.
Knight of Cups
The first card in a set tarot reading serves as the card which represents the subject of the reading.
In the tarot, the Knight of Cups represents a sensitive agent of the present. In general, this is a man who is in the prime of his life and has all the tools needed to succeed, but who allows emotions or desires, both his own and those of others, to create a feeling of inertia in him. The parallels to Rick (Christian Bale) are obvious, with his quest for love – or the feeling of being or falling in love – overpowering his professional obligations. He is preternaturally successful and positioned for big things, but his drifting quest for something more grinds him to a halt. This pursuit is also foretold by the card. Most interestingly, the Knight of Cups is also associated with large bodies of water and the color blue, which helps to explain the trips to the ocean that Rick takes with each of his romantic partners.
The moon is a card that represents self-expression, and is meant to help explain how someone connects on an emotional level with others.
The reading of this card is wholly dependent on the current emotional state of the reading’s subject — in this case the Knight of Cups, Rick. If a person is emotionally stable, then this is an incredibly positive card to pull. However, should it be pulled during a time of emotional turmoil or instability, then the moon tells of a complete lack of control, leading to utter disarray. Given all that we see of Rick’s relationship with the young, beautiful Della (Imogen Poots), it is easy to see how his relationship with her could be fulfilling and meaningful if only he were in a better place. As it stands, however, she is the first step on an introspective journey that only spins Rick out further from his already tenuous center. Living up to her card-defined role, Della accurately pegs Rick’s issue with finding this love that he is looking for: “You don’t want love. You want a love experience.”
The Hanged Man
(Barry and Joseph – Rick’s Brother and Father)
The hanged man, a foreboding name if ever there was one, actually serves to herald a coming reality and represents a willful surrender.
Along with this willful surrender, the card is used to denote the ways in which a struggle for control has led to a lack of it. Symbolically, this is a way of showing how the pulling against a set of binds actually makes them tighter. As the title of the section that introduces Rick’s brother (Wes Bentley) and father (Brian Dennehy), the card could be read as applying to all of the men in this family. Rick’s brother and father have a volatile relationship with one another and with their own circumstances — one is fighting against poverty and drugs, and the other is fighting against Alzheimer’s. Both of these men, with their rage and their decline, could represent a coming reality.
Their fraught relationship is further brought to a boil by the death of Rick’s younger brother, an event that he claims, in voiceover, to have worked hard to repair in their family. Rick resents his brother for ruining that hard work through his continued ill-advised actions, harming their father as a result. These possible futures — anger, loss of control, and death — are all possible for Rick should he fail to heed the card’s warning: that he ought not to fight his bonds through force, but rather seek to understand the knots that tie him.
Similar to The Hanged Man, The Hermit serves as a vision of a coming reality, and, in this care, represents the guidance of a higher self.
Given how the title card for The Hermit overlaps with a voiceover given by Rick’s father, it would be easy to see him as a possible hermit, and perhaps this overlap is meant to allow for this reading. However, the focal point of this section is a house party thrown by Tonio (Antonio Banderas), a hermit with a hundred friends. The intention of this scene appears to support the idea that this card would be drawn facing upside-down, which makes the title ironic in both the story and the reading. Tonio is an emotional hermit, closed off as he is from any real connection and the kind of person who revels in the seeming anonymity of a crowd. He speaks of how his constantly fluctuating infatuations are simply different ways of loving people and how women can be exchanged like flavors.
Much as with The Hanged Man, this character represents a possible future for Rick, one that is actively courting him by offering a sort of sensualist defense of his womanizing — the same womanizing his father denounces.
Judgment is another card that’s meant to address self-expression and serves to represent a milestone in the development of the soul. Moreover, the position of this card in the numbered Major Arcana is used to represent the combination of the intuition from The High Priestess card (on which more later) and the pure potential from The Fool.
Given that this section deals with Rick’s ex-wife, Nancy (Cate Blanchett), it might be easy to take the title literally without looking into the meaning of the card. Nancy passes judgment on Rick, and, through their divorce, rendered her final judgment on his viability as a life partner. Viewed as a milestone for the development of Rick’s soul, the conversation they have about their lack of a child becomes even more formative in the understanding of Rick. Throughout the movie, he observes children and babies with a kind of wistful consideration, and his relationship with his father — along with the way in which his father views his sons — gives an idea as to how fatherhood acts as a form of healing — not just for one’s self, but one’s life.
Rick expresses concern that his tarrying has robbed Nancy of the moment to have children, and that his hesitation has cost her more than just the time they spent together – he broke her potential. His hesitation also cost him the connection he might feel with a child, the kind of spiritually meaningful connection he now chases through the act of falling in love again and again.
Another card through which we see self-expression, The Tower symbolizes chaos. As the only card which represents a man-made object — in most cases one being rent asunder — it also symbolizes the destruction of personal idols.
The Tower prefaces the moment in Knight of Cups when Rick has his first wholly spiritual and emotional relationship with a woman: a model named Helen (Freida Pinto) who he meets at Tonio’s party. Theirs is a union which never finds a physical expression, as Helen rebuffs Rick by saying that she doesn’t “want to be a wrecking ball in men’s lives anymore.” Through this denial of the shallower pleasure he usually chases, she becomes an agent for reawakening in light of his experience with his ex-wife. A taste of the more ethereal completeness that comes with feeling through emotion and not just carnally, Helen offers intimacy without sex.
The High Priestess
A card meant to address personal empowerment, The High Priestess indicates that the subject is undergoing a search for esoteric knowledge and is on a quest for spiritual awakening.
This section of the film, introduced as The High Priestess, involves Rick’s time with a stripper named Karen (Teresa Palmer) who he meets in L.A. and with whom he then travels to Las Vegas. The card name is actually humorous in this context, for Karen claims to see the world differently because she once took drugs. At the same time, the context of this card — especially if you assume that Malick intended the inverted, ironic meaning — informs the purpose that Karen serves during Rick’s emotional journey. True to her card, Karen brings with her a feeling of enlightenment, but it is a selfish, hedonistic kind of revelation. She takes the spiritual growth granted by Helen in The Tower and perverts it, at the same time acting as the kind of temptation that Della, during The Moon, described the devil as offering.
Karen’s place in the story is meant to offer Rick a kind of fulfillment, but not sort he had truly been chasing. She empowers him to enjoy life in the way that Tonio might have offered, but not in the way he had been primed for after seeing Helen.
The Death card is meant to reflect a coming reality, and, in this case, is meant to represent spiritual purity.
This card heralds an intense change, and, in many permutations, the card itself features a child as part of its motif. That it should be the title of the section of the film featuring Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is not surprising. Elizabeth is a married woman with whom Rick has an affair that we see rekindled here. Their time together is seemingly both physically passionate and spiritually meaningful. She feels, at last, like the culmination of everything that he needs in order to find the happiness and life he always wanted to lead.
Things change, however, when their carefree spell is broken by Elizabeth telling Rick about her miscarriage, and that the child may have been his. Again, the concept of procreation is brought to bear, and, through the utter devastation that Elizabeth feels, Rick awakens to the truth of human experience, the intensity of suffering reaching the same height as the intensity of loving.
The final section of the film is the only one that is not named explicitly and is also not seemingly meant to feature any specific character — other than Rick. There is, of course, the ethereal new woman (Isabel Lucas) with whom Rick is now infatuated, and, from what we see of her, it is easy to understand how a sense of “freedom” might be read into her personality.
There are cards that could be used to convey the idea of freedom, and looking at these cards seems to suggest Malick is offering up not so much an ending as a choice for both the audience and Rick. The first card is The Devil, which is meant to represent the freedom of choice fully taking advantage of free will. The other card, though, is Temperance, which represents the freedom from strife through endurance. Given the experiences we have witnessed Rick undertake, it is logical for either of these readings to be applied to him. There is dialogue on top of his experiences to likewise show that either could be Malick’s intention.
The Devil is supported by The High Priestess and The Hermit, not to mention the words spoken by The Moon. Della quotes the devil to Rick, a phrase whose basic idea is that he should love and be happy and unburdened by worry.
Temperance is supported most strongly by The Tower and Judgment. In addition, the final lines of spoken dialogue in the film are by a priest (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who ties suffering to grace, making note of how the external, alienating nature of pain ties us to something greater than ourselves, removing us from the introverted experience of pleasure and easy life.
Regardless of which card Freedom may or may not represent, the idea remains the same. Rick, a slave to a system of his own creation and the whims of some greater spiritual gravity, is now free, emancipated from his former path. The question, then, is what becomes of his soul and his life now that he can truly choose — now that he has been shown the fullness of experience. To delineate his choices would be folly, as they are as many and varied as life’s experiences. That said, the essential question seems to be this: given all possible options, would you choose the hard life that requires patience and endurance so that you might find the joy, or would you choose the path of least resistance towards the life of immediate gratification?
It is a universal question — one that cuts to the very heart of our perceptions of success, fame, love, and life in its totality.
Knight of Cups is now in limited release and expanding.
[Photos courtesy of Arthaus Filmverleih]