Film Review – The Green Knight
The Green Knight
Writer/director David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021) is a stunning achievement. It is one of bold vision, remarkable cinematic skill, and confident artistry. In a summer season that is usually stuffed with lifeless blockbusters, here is a fantasy adventure that has something important to say and uses every fiber of its being to tell it. It operates like a fever dream, splashing the screen with images that tap into our imaginations and doesn’t let go. At its center is a beating heart, one that delves into what it means to be a good person. Honor, loyalty, sex, religion, and legacy are all put under the microscope. This is a story as a grand as an epic tale and as intimate as a quiet character study.
Based on the 14th century “Chivalric Romance,” Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery transports us into the Arthurian legend in which our protagonist Gawain (Dev Patel) is subject to a test of life and death. It is Christmas, and King Arthur (Sean Harris), Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), Arthur’s nephew Gawain, and the Knights of the Round Table are all gathered for celebration. They are visited by The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who appears to be half man half tree, riding a steed and brandishing an enormous axe. The knight puts forth a friendly game: Anyone in the room that can face him and land a blow will be awarded his axe. The catch: One year later the winner must travel to “The Green Chapel” where the knight will be waiting to deliver the same cut. Gawain accepts the offer and promptly lobs his opponent’s head off. To everyone’s shock, The Green Knight coolly picks up his head, reminds Gawain of the deal and rides off with a sinister laugh.
This sequence is only a preamble for Gawain’s hero journey. When we first meet him, Gawain is a reckless drunk, who spends his time stumbling about in a stupor or in the arms of his lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander). Gawain dreams of glory and honor, but his reputation is frowned upon. Many fellow citizens believe his mother (Sarita Choudhury) to be a witch. When Arthur invites him to sit by his side and tell him a story to better know his nephew, Gawain shamefully admits he has none to tell. His encounter with The Green Knight forces him to choose what kind of person he is. It would be very easy to forget about the arrangement and walk away, or he could do the honorable thing, seek The Green Chapel, and fulfill his promise to the knight.
Dev Patel delivers a career best performance. He executes the physical demands of the role, but it’s his eyes that do the heavy lifting. Patel is often called upon to react to events happening around him, and he utilizes his eyes and expressive face to translate exactly what the character is thinking. Gawain chooses to meet the knight, but that doesn’t mean he is steadfast with his choice. Patel subverts the ideas of masculinity and heroism with his portrayal. Gawain has moments of fear, doubt, and hesitation. He is not a swashbuckling, brave hero, but a flesh and blood man that can fall victim to his weaknesses. He battles his temptations, and the closer he gets to the knight, the harder it is for him to fight off the urge to retreat.
What does it mean to do the right thing and is it worth the sacrifice? Lowery presents this theme with such an assured hand that comparisons can be made to Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life (2019) and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), in which a character struggles to embrace their morals in the face of overwhelming adversity. This spirituality runs all throughout The Green Knight. Lowery’s writing, direction and editing, along with Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography and Daniel Hart’s music, structures Gawain’s adventure as much of an inner exploration as it is an external one – maybe even more so. As soon as he steps out of Camelot, he enters a world that feels increasingly like a dreamscape.
As the title would suggest, green is the dominant visual aesthetic. From the vast fields to the dense forests, to the rugged mountains and the moss-covered wetlands, green blankets everything around Gawain. We continuously see him in long shots, placed in center frame with green surrounding him like a trap. Alicia Vikander delivers a key monologue, describing how weeds and plants are always coming – no matter how hard you pluck them from the ground they will always return. It’s as though The Green Knight – who is obviously conceived as an extension of Mother Nature – is an ominous presence, an ongoing reminder of Gawain’s fate.
The further along we go, the more ambiguous things become. Lowery makes things intentionally unclear, whether what we are seeing is really happening or if it reflects Gawain’s emotional turmoil. This is expressed in the mist, fog, and smoke featured in almost every scene, obstructing our view of the terrain. When Gawain sees the first flakes of snow descend around him, we immediately recognize that the next Christmas is quickly approaching. With every stranger Gawain meets – a scavenger (Barry Keoghan), a mysterious woman (Erin Kellyman) and a friendly lord (Joel Edgerton) – we start to question whether anything should be taken at face value. At one point, the camera twirls in a circle, flipping the image upside down – signifying Gawain’s world getting upended. Is this all in his head? Does it matter?
Great movies often have strong endings.The Green Knight is punctuated with one of the best closing scenes you’ll see all year. I dare not describe it in detail, but what I will say is that Lowery crystalizes his themes with such pinpoint accuracy that it is damn near breathtaking. The staging, performances, and editing coalesce with pitch perfect execution. The result is a sequence that wraps the entire film up while still allowing enough room for interpretation. I’m sure the closing passage will be picked apart, analyzed, and written about for many years to come.
It is said that no great movie is ever too long, and that’s exactly my feeling with The Green Knight. It has such an audacious style – methodical in its approach but rich in context – that as soon as it was over I wanted to watch it again. It takes fantastical elements but grounds them on a human level, where we can put ourselves into the character’s shoes and ask what we would do if put in the same position. This is a fantastic film – it is art operating at the highest level.