Thursday, September 15, 2016

Meaning in Malick's Knight of Cups

Many of you may have seen the new Terrence Malick film, Knight of Cups, starring Christian Bale. Since I’ve written about several of Malick’s other films in years past, I figured I’d continue the trend this year, as he is known to use excellent music as part of his compilation scores.

Knight of Cups draws from many pillars in classical music history, from Vaughan Williams, to Grieg, Pärt, and Debussy. But the one theme that struck me most comes from a lesser-known composer, Wojciech Kilar, whose Exodus captures the essence of what the film is all about.

Knight of Cups gets its title from the tarot card by the same name. When upright, it represents change, new and exciting life experiences, opportunity, and a person who is bored with life and searching for something more. If the card is seen upside down, it represents false promises and a person who doesn’t know the truth. The image used for the film shows Rick (Bale) upside down. Perhaps this has deeper meaning?

As is typical for a Malick film, Knight of Cups was improvised, for the most part, the actors not actually knowing the film’s synopsis. Throughout the film, there are references to the character Christian in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, who travels through the ups and downs of life, journeying from his home to the Celestial City (symbolic of heaven). In the film, Rick travels his own journey, forgetting his true origins, and searching for his identity. The false hopes and materialistic pleasures of the world have distracted him and the entire film uses symbolism to point Rick back to the path he needs to follow. Harkening back to The Pilgrim’s Progress, Rick is stuck in the City of Vanity Fair, wandering through life, recalling fragmented memories from his past.

Knight of Cups is divided into chapters, each with the title of a tarot card (except for the last). This last chapter is entitled “Freedom” and shows the innocent Isabel helping Rick find a way to move forward on his journey to the “Celestial City.” While earlier in the film, Malick shows Rick driving through tunnels to nowhere, the final scene shows him driving with purpose toward the horizon. Perhaps he’s found his identity?

Now before I get too carried away with my interpretations of the film’s plot, let’s turn back to Wojciech Kilar’s Exodus. The title alone relates to the overall theme of the film, as Rick is on his own “exodus” from the emptiness of Hollywood, a modern Egypt, if you will. Kilar wrote this beautiful piece for choir and orchestra and based it on the Biblical book of Exodus. The text, found near the end of the piece, refers to Miriam’s song of praise after God delivered the Israelites from the hands of the Egyptians. Just as Rick travels from his world of sin and bondage toward finding freedom, the Israelites traveled from their own world of bondage in Egypt to the freedom found in the Promised Land.

Have you seen Knight of Cups? If so, do you find Kilar’s Exodus an effective addition to Malick’s compilation score? 

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