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A Guide to Reading the Tarot in Terrence Malick’s ‘Knight of Cups’

Written by on March 17, 2016 

The Tower

Knight of Cups Tarot 6

(Helen)

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

Knight of Cups Tarot 7

(Karen)

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.

Death

Knight of Cups Tarot 8

(Elizabeth)

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.

Freedom

Knight of Cups Tarot 9

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-Stahlwho 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]

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