Director: David Lowery
Notable Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Ralph Ineson
It ain’t easy being green. Although that phrase comes from a far different period of time and from a much different world of entertainment, the phrase seems fitting when looking down at the CinemaScore and Rotten Tomatoes audience reactions to The Green Knight. It’s a film that was relatively well-received by critics (and if you’re tempted to look down - you’ll see my own very favorable score for this one) and yet reads divisive among audiences. The appreciation for its bold visuals rings true across the board, but the rest… well, the rest of The Green Knight is up for debate.
This is not an unusual place to be for film studio A24 or director David Lowery. Both have had their fair share of critical acclaim and audience push back through their careers. Having Lowery jump on board the A24 train is a natural progression, but it’s the choice of subject matter with The Green Knight that is most surprising. An artistic fresh and bold take on the classic Arthurian legend and poem, The Green Knight is both a heightened and abrasively artsy assault on its viewer, but it’s also a slow burn and grounded version of it that focuses on realistic character emotions. It’s not easy being green and balancing those two often very different approaches in one film, but The Green Knight smoothly accomplishes the task with striking effectiveness.
Although IP is the name of the game in modern cinema and the story of The Green Knight has been translated to the silver screen previously, yes, I’m looking at my copy of Sword of the Valiant on my shelf right now, it’s not the safest bet to adapt a 14th Century poem. Yet, writer and director Lowery not only aims to adapt the story, but change substantial portions of it to reflect some intriguing new themes and narrative threads. He then goes a step further by crafting a film that pulls away from explaining large swaths of its plot or character choices and leaves those elements up to interpretation by the audience.
In this version, Sir Gawain, played with a career defining intuition and powerhouse performance from Dev Patel, is the nephew of King Arthur, in another stellar secondary pop performance by Sean Harris. On a Christmas Day, the woody Green Knight appears to challenge one of Arthur’s knights. Gawain takes the challenge and beheads the knight, not believing in its claim that however it is stricken that it will return the blow in one year. The bulk of the film follows Gawain as he goes on his quest after that year to face his fate.
Seeing The Green Knight will be substantially helped by having a basic understanding of Arthurian legends, but it’s not necessary. I was lucky enough that my significant other is something of a nerd in that arena and she immediately caught onto much of the film’s subtext that might have slid under my radar. Unfortunately, to dig into too much of the meaning behind the film or what certain characters represent would deter from the overall experience that The Green Knight is so successful at creating.
What can be said is that The Green Knight is one of the most bizarre road trip films ever crafted. It follows the basic structure of the classic road trip flick, from the inciting event that leads Gawain on his quest to the various characters and side quests he must complete while on his way to face the titular antagonist.
Oftentimes the secondary plots might seem meandering, particularly in regard to a headless ghost in an abandoned lodge or the sexually explicit queen trying to entice Gawain behind her husband’s back, but they all serve two purposes. The first is to craft the atmospheric tension within the world, visually exploding with textures and colors that indicate the various obstacles thrown in the path of Gawain. A feat that The Green Knight accomplishes with impressive impact. These moments all have their own genre bend, whether its erotic, horror, or dark comedy, and it creates a slickly fluid diversity within the fantasy world building.
The second is to subtly build the character work around Gawain and the purpose of his quest. A purpose that isn’t fully revealed until the enticingly vague and heavily artistic (almost dialogue-less) third act. For maximum effect and to add further intrigue, continue watching until after the credits. The film is heavily themed around honor and loyalty. Whether it’s to his king, to his mother, to the husband with his provocative wife, or his romantic interest waiting for him at home, The Green Knight has a lot to say about Gawain and status as a hero in waiting and how the world manipulates that status to its own needs. In its approach to bridging this subject, the plot and narrative will take some larger leaps that require the audience to fill in the blanks, but it’s bold and beautiful in how it accomplishes this task.
Whether it's the nuanced performances, the balance between realistic and fantastical set and costume designs, the varied side stories and their genre elements, or the practically abrasive use of atmosphere, long takes, and vague dialogue, The Green Knight is a wholly unique version in comparison to previous cinematic outings. It also makes it one of the more unabashedly fantastic films released this year. It may not be a cinematic experience for everyone, particularly in how it makes its audience dig through the gaps, but for those looking for some impressively challenging cinema, take a journey and face The Green Knight.