Mysticism and Terrence Malik’s “Knight of Cups”

Presented March 12, 2021. at the Northeast Modern Language Association (NeMLA), 52nd Annual Convention.

Malick’s 2015 Knight of Cups portrays the chaotic-yet-cathartic life of a Hollywood screenwriter and his spiritual ascent out of decadence towards existential meaning. With the backdrop of John Bunyan’s 17th century allegory, the prison epistle The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the constant visual storytelling themes of Platonic ascesis and enlightenment, the film can be fairly interpreted as utilizing the scala literary form, that is, having to do with the “ladder of divine ascent.”

With this in mind, a “spiritually formative” (rather than expository) reading of each of the arcana in the film (characters who Malik links to Tarot cards) may also elucidate the mystical journey of the protagonist, Rick. The “anonymous” author of Meditations on the Tarot explores the Tarot of Marseilles through this lens and serves as a helpful interlocutor. His elucidations on various cards (The Moon, The Tower, The High Priestess, and Death) will be examined, building typological links between the characters’ portrayal in the film and their potential meanings in Rick’s spiritual exercises.