The Green Knight Review: A Hypnotic, Challenging, and Enlightening Arthurian Reimagining
Arthurian legends aren't called "legends" out of hyperbole; they've been passed down for centuries, with dozens of generations passing along these stories and tall tales in a variety of mediums, detailing triumph and tragedy to shine a light on the best, and worst, of what humanity has to offer. Most contemporary adaptations of these legends lean more into the aesthetics of these stories, delivering all manner of swords and shields clashing against one another to the delight of audiences. The Green Knight, meanwhile, manages to take a 2,500-word poem from the 14th century to craft an experience that tackles honor, religion, nature, sacrifice, chivalry, and mortality in both overt and ambiguous ways, all while managing to be hypnotic and visually lush. The film fully falls in line with filmmaker David Lowery's previous work, yet might prove too enigmatic and existential for audiences merely hoping to see Dev Patel having sword fights.
On Christmas Day, the mysterious and tree-like Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) offers the wager that, if one of King Arthur's knights manages to behead him, he can have the knight's powerful ax, though this knight must return in one year to have the fatal blow administered back to him. Not yet a knight himself, Gawain (Patel) takes the challenge, only for the Green Knight to recover his head and ride back out into the darkness. The following year, Gawain sets out to finish his quest, encountering various figures that test his mettle as he struggles to prove himself honorable and stay true to his word, while also being confronted with his certain doom.
With his previous films, Lowery has wavered between explicit and linear storytelling, as seen in Pete's Dragon, and aggressively enigmatic, as in A Ghost Story, delivering extremes of the storytelling spectrum. The Green Knight offers the best of both worlds, as the actual narrative is relatively rudimentary, boiled down to its core components, while the journey itself allows Lowery's cinematic sensibilities to flourish. From the opening scenes, in which Gawain is seen gallivanting around the village on his way to Arthur's iconic round table, the imagery is intimate and evocative, managing to capture the beauty of these locations without necessarily romanticizing them. The 14th century was grim and dark, yet beauty could still be found in the most unexpected of places.
Finding beauty in darkness and darkness in beauty is a running theme throughout much of Lowery's work, with The Green Knight exemplifying this in ways both literal and figurative. The original poem the film is based on is dense, to say the least, with this adaptation managing to honor all of its seemingly disjointed and disparate themes. The Green Knight himself represents nature fighting back against civilization, as well as paganism vs. organized religion, while also managing to represent the ultimate return we all make back into the ground. Lowery never beats you over the head with these points, allowing the audience to glean from the experience whatever they would like, with repeat viewings sure to only enrich the experience. Given how much everyone around the world has been confronted with their own mortality over the past year, questioning their lot in life, Green Knight will arguably have more to offer audiences now than were it to have hit theaters when it was intended to back in 2020.
Another wise decision on Lowery's part was to reunite with his A Ghost Story cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, who manages to make every frame exponentially engaging. Whether we're following Gawain across a corpse-laden field or watching him wander through woods, each frame is lush and mystical while also feeling natural and grounded. Everything exists in a dream-like state, with the audience feeling familiarity with each landscape while also knowing they're never truly experienced such magical spaces.
Patel, along with supporting actors Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, and other indie-film heavyweights, shines not merely as the noble Gawain, but more as a conduit that the audience can see themselves through. Gawain struggles at every step with honor, duty, and representing the ideals of a knight through a story that makes these struggles more clear cut, yet they are all universal themes. We've all had to make tough decisions about which path we should follow vs. which path we want to follow, and the impact that these choices will have not only on ourselves, but on those closest to us. The supporting cast all manifest allies and obstacles for Gawain, with every character and every performance truly shining thanks to their restraint. It's not the characters themselves that are significant, it's the ways in which their universality will evoke connections between these figures and what they represent in our own lives.
The enigmatic nature of the original story and consequently the film means that the overall pacing and narrative momentum can sometimes struggle. The overall structure of the film is broken up with chapters and title cards, yet not each chapter is as engaging for every audience member as the next. While you might connect with Gawain's encounters with Barry Keoghan's Scavenger, you might not connect as much with Erin Kellyman's mysterious Winifred. By the end of the picture, you'll be as exhausted as Gawain himself, likely being surprised that you haven't been journeying for a year, but instead have been sitting in a theater for just over two hours.
The Green Knight won't be the most crowd-pleasing Arthurian adaptation, with its strengths coming from the ways in which it serves as its own legend that is open for interpretation. It's frustrating and fulfilling, depressing and hopeful, grounded and otherworldy. Viewers can digest it as an ethereal head trip featuring Dev Patel on a horse, or they can leave as a different person from who they were when the picture started, both appreciating the life they have while they have it and questioning if they're the Gawain bound by duty or the one who recognizes the absurdity of living by someone else's rules. Lowery and The Green Knight are forging their own path, sure to inspire audiences to pursue their owns paths, wherever those might take them.
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Green Knight lands in theaters on July 30th.