Knight of Cups (2016), the latest film from Terrence Malick, follows - in broad strokes - the story of Rick (Christian Bale), a disillusioned screenwriter who confronts his relationships with his family and the women he has loved, including Cate Blanchett’s Nancy and Natalie Portman’s Elizabeth. I say "in broad strokes" because the film hardly has a conventional story and does not follow any traditional narrative structure, which is not surprising given Malick’s body of work and artistic vision. The movie is a collection of scenes and images, occasionally punctuated by minimal dialogue. More than a traditional film narrative, it is a feature-length visual poem.
Looking at Knight of Cups for plot or traditional three-act structure is an exercise in futility. So how can a viewer unpack such a deconstructed narrative? Given the film's structure, the answer lies not in the language of feature film but in the language of poetry. Reframing the analysis and freeing the film from traditional expectations is key to unlocking meaning from the collective moments of the movie. Just as poetry is capable of evoking emotion and meaning where sometimes traditional prose falls short, Malick’s film is doing the same, operating as a more abstract artistic effort than the typical viewing experience.
Knight of Cups (2016)
One of the mechanisms through which poetry can evoke emotion differently than prose is metaphor, which is used extensively in Knight of Cups. Tarot cards underscore the language of the film. The title card, Knight of Cups, is a bringer of ideas, opportunities and offers. He is bored and restless but also artistic and intuitive. In a reading, if the Knight of Cups card is facing up, it represents change and new excitements. Facing down, it signals fraud and false promises. This insight into the title begins to help decode the visuals of the film.
A Poster for Knight of Cups (2016)
The tarot theme continues through the individual sections of the movie. After the opening sequence comes The Hanged Man, then The Hermit, The Tower, The Sun, The High Priestess, and, finally, Death. Each section and each sequence represents a different relationship for Rick.
Instead of looking at each section to tie together sequentially through literal story elements, these sections can be viewed as the individual stanzas of the overall work. They relate, generally, to the whole but also stand alone as discreet artistic visions eliciting different emotions. Each section shares elements that tie back into the overall themes: the tarot connection and visual elements like water recur, but in each chapter these images are used in unique ways. Mag Gabbert, an award-winning poet and professor of poetry, told ScreenPrism,"These [metaphors] allow us to read both literal and figurative meaning from an image simultaneously, and often the nature of the implied relationship between the two elements allows us to read emotion into the comparison, too."
Gabbert also points to T.S. Eliot to help to unpack the "visual poetry" of Malick. Elliot articulated a poetic theory in 1921 in a piece called Hamlet and His Problems. The theory is now known as the "Objective Correlative." Eliot wrote, "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." Gabbert explains, "In this essay Eliot is talking about revealing a character’s emotion through the writing, but since the time he coined this idea it’s been adapted to also refer to the way in which writing (or art) inflicts emotion upon the reader (or viewer)."
So, for example, when Rick is walking alone in the desert, the elements that make up the entirety of the scene - the desolate environment, the lack of water, the barren rocks - work together to evoke Malick's objective correlative. In this case, the correlative is isolation.
Christian Bale in Knight of Cups (2016)
In The High Priestess section, when we see Rick partying at the pool at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, we see what is happening, but we feel the desperation in the self-destructive escapism. In some interpretations of the Tarot, this High Priestess card, when it appears for a man, represents a woman that the man desires but cannot have. In the film, Malick deals the Death card last. Death represents change or transformation, an end that leads to a beginning and implies a dawning self-awareness.
While all these elements in Knight of Cups support the poetry comparison, it's important to underline that Malick's work is a visual poem, in the language of cinema. Notably, Malick maximizes the cinematic imagery while often minimizing the spoken word. Dialogue often is layered beneath music cues and soundtrack, and we see conversations happening instead of listening to them happen. In this way, Malick underscores the sensory, evocative nature of his filmic world and evades our efforts to condense the action we see into restrictive verbal summaries. Malick constructs his sentences and phraseology through images, and the emotional effect on a viewer is arguably different, reaching other senses and feelings, than a poem of words.
Natalie Portman in Knight of Cups (2016)
Terrence Malick’s body of work, most recently Knight of Cups, is challenging and evocative. He uses the visual medium of film in a way that eschews traditional storytelling. Thinking of the film in a way other than as linear narrative forces viewers to engage with symbols, themes and emotional connections in ways that other films do not. Like a complex poem, Knight of Cups is not for a casual filmgoer. It demands an interactive dialogue with the audience, who must invest themselves in learning to read Malick's visual language.