mateo vargas’s review published on Letterboxd:
Terrence Malick has been working towards something like this his whole career. Jettisoning extraneous plot, maintaining a modicum of on screen dialogue and mainlining an experimental stream of consciousness filmic language composed of fragmented moments and shards of memory into a rapturous ballet of movement and color. These elements have increasingly come to dominate the cinema of Malick's most recent output and have made him something of an acquired taste the more entrenched he becomes in his unique brand of poetic voice-over distilled reveries. The trancelike fugue state of Knight of Cups marks his most formally daring accomplishment yet as well as a complete crossover into the liberating wilderness of pure cinematic experimentation. The results are nothing short of a complete and utter overhaul of interior experience as cinematic representation.
Alienation, ennui, memory, architecture, nature. All are filtered through Emmanuel Lubezki's roving, inquisitive lens as it drifts through the many natural and man made landscapes of L.A. following Rick (Christian Bale), a Hollywood screenwriter mired in hedonism and perpetual detachment and dissatisfaction. As the film skitters and glides through Rick's existential quest for feeling and philosophical musings on his place in the universe, fragmented dreams and memories (mostly involving his failed relationships with lovers and family), the story line (if you can call it one) is imbued with a mythic quality stemming from literary references to Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress and Plato's Phaedrus. Rick is a figure of waywardness, perpetually compared to the story of an Egyptian prince who was sent West to collect a coveted pearl but was led astray by decadence and indulgence. In fact, an amusing mythopoetic touch has him being awoken at the start of the film by an earthquake. The joke (or tragedy) is that here is a man who, though surrounded by such beauty and pleasure, is incapable of feeling anything real or tangible. Malick's radical dedication to presenting a central character as a borderline non-existent shell, drifting through the broken shards of his own heart and mind is downright unprecedented in a film of this scale and scope. Downtown skyscrapers, teeming freeways, neon glow night clubs, the Pacific Ocean, Death Valley. All appear as vacuous and alien as a foreign planet. You'd be forgiven for thinking this was Antonioni.
Furthering the film's metaphysical bent is its division into 8 Tarot card chapters (perhaps a sly nod to Fellini's 8 1/2) as well as its hypnotically recurring imagery of water, animals, sky and flight. Artificiality, beauty and the ever out of grasp intangible something (call it spiritual if you want) that eludes these characters at every turn all coincide, existing on vertiginous visual planes and standing in for the human condition as a whole. Malick's eye for poetic imagery with graceful thematic underpinnings is just as stunning as ever. Here we get the unforgettable maw of a dog grasping futilely for a ball underwater linked to beach lining humans transfixed with returning to the evolutionary cradle of the vast ocean and bodies flailing in isolated pools, crude simulacrums of the real thing. Vast swaths of window displays and mannequin sets are framed over and over again as extensions of modeling and advertisement. What are the nature of human relationships in this world of commerce and fabrication? What of the self? The other? Are there even any distinctions to be made at all? These are the type of questions raised throughout. A desire to see the world more clearly and deeply courses through the film's use of multi format celluloid and digital footage. As if film (in all its artifice) was not nearly enough to contain the imperfect wonders of perception as they spill over into the unique vantage point of a Go-Pro hurtling through the primordial waves crashing on the shore. As the narrator intones at one point, "Treat this world as it deserves. There are no principles, just circumstances".