‘The Green Knight’ Is One of 2021’s First Must-See Movies
Filmmaker David Lowery’s (“Pete’s Dragon”) latest is a mesmerizing medieval fantasy where Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain squares off against a “Lord of the Rings”-esque Green Knight.
Legends are made of gallant adventurers accepting trials and facing fears, and such a challenge is embraced not only by The Green Knight’s protagonist Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) but also by its writer/director David Lowery, who here undertakes the imposing mission of adapting the 14th-century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
A film about heroism and storytelling that questions the very nature of both, Lowery’s follow-up to 2018’s The Old Man & the Gun is a mesmerizing affair, infused with dreamy mystery and a sense of onerous burden, both of which elevate this saga of valor, sacrifice, and the thorny relationship between myth and reality. At once a surreal nightmare of magic and malevolence and a canny critique of the tall tales we tell ourselves and each other, it’s an exceptional marriage of the medieval and the modern.
Pitched between John Boorman’s extravagant Excalibur and Robert Bresson’s austere Lancelot du Lac, Lowery’s grungy and gloomy fantasy epic (in theaters July 30) has deconstruction on its mind, and those heady concerns ultimately enhance its beguiling intrigue and terror. “I’m not ready,” confesses Sir Gawain as he races from the brothel where his lover (Alicia Vikander) works. Alas, ready he must soon be. At an ensuing Christmas gathering at the Round Table, Sir Gawain’s weary uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris) beckons his nephew to his side, confiding that he wishes to know the young man better. An immature drunkard playboy, Sir Gawain responds that he has no personal story to tell, at which point fate—or rather, his mother Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury)—intervenes, conjuring the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a towering tree bark-covered warrior who enters the Round Table on horseback, wielding a mighty axe. Via a letter, the Green Knight proposes a game: to acquire his prized weapon, one of Arthur’s stout men need only level a single blow against him. The catch? In one year’s time, that same individual must find the Green Knight at the Green Chapel, bend the knee, and receive a return blow.
Desperate to demonstrate his worthiness, Sir Gawain agrees to this bargain, and with Excalibur in hand—and considerable hesitation in his eyes, since his adversary immediately lowers his neck to facilitate a fatal attack—he severs the Green Knight’s head from his shoulders. The interloper, however, is far from dead; rather, his body rises, collects his decapitated noggin and rides off, cackling madly as he departs. Thus The Green Knight sets its classical scene, with Lowery employing a bevy of devices—including haunting transitional fades, and cross-cutting between Sir Gawain’s ordeal and Morgan Le Fay’s witchy ceremony—to cast an ominous spell. In shots of wax seals cracking, water dripping on damp rock, and moss sprouting between stone tiles, the director suggests the totemic significance of everything, Earthly and otherwise, in this ancient world, which creaks and groans with weighty menace.
Split into chapters, The Green Knight is shrouded in mist and shadow, soggy with rot, and illuminated by unnatural light that creeps over the edges of thatched roofs and scraggly mountain ridges. It’s into this landscape that, one year after his encounter with the Green Knight, Sir Gawain ventures, bolstered by an enchanted sash (from his mother) that will protect him from harm so long as he keeps it around his waist, and determined to carry out his end of the deal and, in doing so, achieve the honor that all knights seek. This upsets Vikander’s lady, who believes that goodness is enough to make a man, and who also pines to be Sir Gawain’s courtly bride. The silence with which Sir Gawain greets that latter sentiment, however, implies that he has little faith or interest in trying to upend the status quo. Consequently, when he embarks on his quest, he does so with a single-minded resolve to live up to the lofty expectations of Arthur, the Round Table, and himself.
Lowery’s circular camera pans allude to the push-pull between the past and the present (and the natural and supernatural, and the authentic and the illusory), just as his rotating camerawork conveys Sir Gawain’s topsy-turvy condition. Meanwhile, a puppet show about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as Sir Gawain’s later encounter with a spirit named Winifred (Erin Kellyman) who longs to reclaim her own severed head, speak to the film’s fascination with storytelling, and its fraught relationship with reality. The Green Knight is a fable about a crusader who wishes to cement his own fairytale legacy, and that self-consciousness is ever-present as Sir Gawain makes his way from dirt road to war-torn battlefield to foggy cliff to swampy marsh, along the way encountering a variety of figures who are untrustworthy (Barry Keoghan’s bandit), unnerving (Alicia Vikander’s regal Esel, wife of Joel Edgerton’s Lord), unfathomable (a collection of nude, motherly giants) or friendly—namely, a fox whose red coat matches the hue of Sir Gawain’s cloak, and who turns out to have more to say than just indecipherable howls.
The Green Knight operates as if in a fugue state. Its collection of majestically bleak landscapes, harried close-ups and cryptic magical elements (even Merlin goes unidentified, despite two appearances) do much to heighten its mood of perpetual, perplexing mortal and existential peril. The film holds definitive answers close to its vest, and yet it’s never opaque to the point of aggravation, thanks to Lowery’s command of his melancholic tone and Patel’s potent lead performance. Sir Gawain is a would-be champion who boasts as much doubt and dread as bravery, and his anxieties are palpable throughout, even as his specific thoughts and motivations remain hard to pin down. Courtesy of Patel’s magnetic turn, he’s a riddle of a protagonist, which feels ideal for an odyssey about the unresolvable tension between adhering to, and rejecting, traditional notions of right and wrong, good and evil, and heroism and villainy—all of which culminates in a breathtaking final passage of cowardice and courage.
Midway through The Green Knight, Vikander’s Esel confides to Sir Gawain that, when she transcribes stories for books, she sometimes makes improvements where she sees fit—a sly nod to Lowery’s own aim of translating, and interpreting, his famed source material. Enthralling and enigmatic, his Arthurian adventure proves that he’s more than up to that task.