I hesitate to recommend watching Terrence Malick’s 2015 Knight of Cups.

Knight of Cups posterIt is, for the most part, a painful blistering experience. Of course it is not intended to be easy… sometimes life isn’t.

The movie consists mostly of the main character Rick (Christian Bale) wandering in a variety of hellish Los Angeles locations with occasional respite by the ocean or in the desert.

Rick almost never speaks. He utters occasional short bits of voiceover, but mostly just appears on the periphery of a variety of human encounters; it would be a stretch to call them relationships. He never connects. He is a man completely alone struggling to navigate his tortured inner pysche and find his way through painful dysfunctional relationships.

In the words of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress  to which the film alludes, Rick is

a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place with his face from his own house book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back.

But Rick has lost the book. There are few noticeable guides and only the slightest signposts to redemption along the way.

Rick is a pilgrim to whom the world offers endless distractions and promising anesthetics. But none of them work. He cannot find his way to the land of forgetfulness. He is plagued by memories of failure, regret and loss. He is drowning in surfaces and images, none of which provide any meaning or connection.  Knight of Cups Surreal

Seeking to avoid the pain of his life, Rick is sleep walking through a surreal landscape of self-indulgence. But he cannot avoid the inevitability of his own life. There is no escape from the cage as long as he seeks to deny reality.

Malick’s movie is haunted by impermanence; nothing lasts. It is a film in constant motion. No one stands still. Everyone is on the move seeking to avoid the inevitability of death in the future and pain in the present.

Rick is condemned to live in a fearful fantasy land of “fragments,” “cut off” from reality. He falls “in love twenty times a day”, but always finds himself in “chaos”,

Longing for something other… without knowing what it is.

That “something other” stalks the dark corners of Rick’s life. He is haunted by vague hints of holiness.  He cannot entirely shake vague memories of transcendence. But he has lost the map; he cannot find his way beyond the material realm in which he feels imprisoned:

When we see a beautiful woman, or a man…
the soul remembers the beauty
it used to know in heaven.
And wings begin to spout,
and that makes the soul want to fly,
but it cannot yet.
It is still too weak.

Near the end of the film, an elderly priest. Father Zeitlinger, appears standing near the front of a church. He addresses someone  who is out of view of the camera, presumably Rick, who perhaps has turned to the priest seeking wisdom. The priest says,

Seems you’re alone.

You’re not.

Even now, he’s taking your hand and guiding you by a way you cannot see.

If you are unhappy, you shouldn’t take it as a mark of God’s disfavor.

Just to the contrary. Might be the very sign he loves you.

He shows his love, not by helping you avoid suffering, by sending you suffering. By keeping you there.

To suffer binds you to something higher than yourself. Higher than your own will.

Takes you from the world to find what lies beyond it.

We are not only to endure patiently the troubles he sends. We are to regard them as gifts.

As gifts more precious than the happiness we wish for ourselves.

The suffering Rick has sought to evade is not the enemy. If he will only stop and be present to the moments of his life, he will discover that the pain he has sought to avoid is the path to awakening.

It is not clear in the end that Rick will find his way to this “light,” this “pearl” he once possessed.


see Brett McCracken’s excellent and thoughtful review at Christianity Today: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/march-web-only/knight-of-cups-and-spirituality-of-sleaze.html