Nick Vass’s review published on Letterboxd:
It'd be an understatement to say that Malick has gone into senility here. He's managed to lose his marbles. I never would've thought that a director who's created peerless tone poems on the cataclysmic forces of nature could make a film this fucking ridiculous.
Endless sequences of hilariously reflective voiceover are accompanied by Christian Bale staring into the ocean and at helicopters. He'll occasionally ponder at skyscrapers and wander through the desert, too. There's also a number of moments in which he glooms over the emptiness of his hedonistic lifestyle. This is a film that doesn't just abandon any notion of linear plotting. It's practically a parody of idiosyncratic methods. I'll usually admire a work if it tries to wrestle with unconventional narrative structure. But there's absolutely nothing of merit in Knight of Cups and its self-consciously reductive storytelling.
I'm curious to see if audiences will respond to this film as a feverish dream about a protagonist's crisis. But I couldn't be further on the other spectrum. There isn't a single shred of tangible complexity, thematic depth or strong character interaction to be found. I simply thought it was pretentious wank trying to masquerade itself as spiritual existentialism.
Christian Bale plays the black-clad Hollywood downer Rick who wakes up one morning during an earthquake and is set to mourn the death of his brother. These are the two singular moments of dramatic gravity. Through a series of cryptic chapters entitled "The Moon", "The Hanged Man", "The Tower", "The Hermit", "Judgment", "Death" and "Freedom" (none of which are ever properly explored beyond their laughable vagueness), he meets a series of women who are either in strip clubs, work as models, have a dead-end marriage or lay by the pool-sides of mansions. For its interminably wasted 118 minute duration, what you are essentially given is this: characters pensively gazing and caressing each other as pseudo-philosophically mused bullshit is punctuated by elliptical music.
"Who am I?" "Which way should I go?" "Fragments...pieces of the man I used to be." "Where will I find you?" Variations of these thoughts are presented as a constant influx for the entire runtime. It would've been more rewarding to break the mold with any semblance of dialogue. This film is vacant drivel.
Even the way in which a decadent existence seems portrayed is nothing more than stock banality. A series of star-studded parties become a depressive company in Rick's life or he's either chased by lingerie models in hotel rooms. The women in his life include wild Imogen Poots, excitable pole dancer Teresa Palmer, emotionally livid Cate Blanchett (who's sole scene is the only weighty moment here) or the unhappily married Natalie Portman who shoves her toes in Bale's mouth. Also, on a few occasions, the father-son team of Wes Bentley and Brian Dennehy are seen viciously arguing with each other but it's simply presented in total silence. The film's attempt to show a fragmented perspective on what's occurring does not only serve as frustration but also a waste of domestic credibility. Familial strain and tense relationships have rarely been shown in such a diminishing format.
Less related to the central premise of Rick's contrived dilemma are a number of random interludes. Malick focuses on a heroin-addict who has severely swollen legs, the poverty-stricken folk on a sidewalk or a dog wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt which tries to bite a tennis ball underwater. I'll let you decide on whether these moments are substantial or simply fickle for the sake of it.
Visually speaking, considering it's Malick's long-time collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups has him go for a more psychedelic lensing with whirlwind camera angles as actors are placed off-center. It did seem initially fascinating at first. A newfound attempt between cinematographer and director. But there isn't much of the consistent visual sumptuousness from his previous work.
I found nothing to be soulful, challenging or emotionally enriching here. It offers shallow views on life and I felt cheated by a director who's never come close to missing before. Knight of Cups is inept film-making and I really hated it.