PLOT: After landing a blow on the mysterious Green Knight and promising he will get to do the same to him one year later, Sir Gawain must travel across the land to fulfill his duty, and in the process confront what it means to be a man of chivalry and honor.
REVIEW: As the first half of 2021 has been made up mostly of small indie gems and summer staples testing the waters of theater-going returns, David Lowery’s THE GREEN KNIGHT is truly the first movie of the year that will blow you away. A gonzo spin on an Arthurian tale that ditches the comedy and wild spectacle of previous cinematic outings but manages to retain an even greater fantastical splendor, Green Knight blends the classic themes of timeless chivalrous tales with a modern, brazenly ballsy sensibility perfect for anyone looking for a bedtime story that’s as guaranteed to dazzle as much as haunt your dreams.
Based on a tale written by an unknown author and that has miraculously survived the centuries, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, the tale of chivalry and honor centers on the titular Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris). An adult of the court but young enough to have no tales to tell of his own among the legendary knights of Arthur’s roundtable, he’s a man who longs to be a knight in that he loves the idea of what a knight is – while having no experience in what it truly means to be one. That all changes when he thrusts himself into the spotlight, taking on the challenge by the incoming Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who dares any man to strike him freely, accepting he will be able to dish out an equal blow “one year hence.” Going straight for the kill and chopping off his head, Gawain now must accept his fate by seeking out the knight one year later to fulfill his oath.
From the jump, that sounds bleak as all hell. And indeed, Lowery’s take on this Medieval setting and the court of Camelot feels right at home alongside another A24 classic, Robert Eggers’ The Witch. The skies are constantly grey and cloudy, and this King Arthur is as much Clive Owen or Charlie Hunnam as I am. He’s tired and weak, with circles under his eyes and hardly able to hold his sword, Excalibur. But there’s a wisdom and warmth Harris offers to Patel’s Gawain, which is a great example of how well Lowery brings out the magic underneath the more realistic grit and grime. With the endlessly impressive work from cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (who also shot Lowery’s A Ghost Story), production designer Jade Healy, and Malgosia Turzansak’s god-tier costume design at his side, Lowery is able to ensure that if anything appears dreary it’s simply a canvas for marvel after marvel of craftmanship to burst off the screen.
Lowery knows full well this is a tale filled with magic, and intricate lighting and design add layer after layer of arresting and sometimes terrifying and trippy visuals that absorb you into a new world entirely. His past movies such as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon, and The Old Man & the Gun have demonstrated his love of old-school storytelling, and he often filled them with ethereal elements, and here he’s completely unrestrained and never more assured in his vision. Trusting full well the power of his cast and the story at its core, he puts Patel and the entire supporting ensemble full center and trusts the audience will eat up everything they say and do, no matter how bizarre it all certainly gets.
But as far as character work goes, this is Patel’s show. Last year his excellent work in The Personal History of David Copperfield showed off his humor and ceaseless charm, his Gawain takes him in the opposite direction, and he’s equally up to the task. At the start, he brings humor to Gawain, who loves the spice of life, spending time in a brothel with the lovely Esel (Alicia Vikander, in one of two roles), and is eager to prove himself to Arthur. As his odyssey goes on, the realities of what it means to face the brutalities and vices of a world that will eventually swallow everything whole while bearing the code of a knight bends and breaks his perception of life itself. He’s forced to confront what it means to be honorable, live up to that greed, and even stare down the question of if a chivalrous life is even worth living in the face of death. Often alone, Patel seamlessly brings out Gawain’s fear as he trudges through physical turmoil, and towards the end, the consistent darkness of a haunted man. It’s a role that demands extreme control over physicality and emotional range, and while it might not be a huge, showy role filled with grand speeches and inspiring acts, it no less proves the power he can command as a leading man.
The odyssey of Gawain itself is rousing and hypnotic, and Lowery’s genius shows in how he took a methodical, sometimes incredibly quiet, always meditative experience and made it feel magical, haunting, and even a bit quirky. Light on action, each of Gawain’s encounters and trials are meant to challenge his resolve as a budding knight and run the gamut of suspenseful, terrifying, sensual, and even completely bonkers in their fantasy leanings. The tone and visual style of each is unique, and each one is filled with supporting performances from the likes of Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Joel Edgerton, Vikandner, and even an adorable CGI fox companion that get their time to shine and leave a massive impression. It’s like an epic road trip flick, but with fewer beer-drinking competitions, and with more giants and looming dread.
On a sensory level, there’s absolutely nothing like it. Entrancing in its visual leaps and bounds, Lowery lets the editing, effects, and the real landscapes contort and play with your conception of reality. One moment I was compelled by the vast forests, murky bogs, or rolling hills, and in an instant felt transported into another world entirely where time and space seem to have no rules. Lowery understands that in these legends magic and the real world were blended together, and for something to be magical and wondrous was to also be terrifying. There are numerous scenes that are equal parts gobsmackingly beautiful and unforgettably unsettling, and all together, especially when paired with another fantastic score by Daniel Hart, packs more wonder than some of the most expensive blockbusters.
But the very best scene in the movie is exactly the one it should be – the finale between Gawain and Green Knight. The most fairy tale-looking of every scene, Lowery simply lets the earthen creaks of the Knight’s abode quietly linger. It’s captivating in its stillness, and when Ineson’s imposing, immortal figure stands tall the weight of Gawain’s journey and inner turmoil comes crashing down, leading to an unbelievably effective finale that drives home the core themes and existential crisis of identity and duty. It’s a simple story at its core – as it should be – but by leaving so much to unpack it will succeed in making you want to rewatch again and again to absorb its hard-hitting themes.
The Green Knight is one of those rare movies I actually have a hard time describing because, in a way, I just want to keep my experience to myself. But I have a duty here, and I say this with no hyperbole and only with an urgency that hopes you will watch it for yourself: Green Knight is a perfect Medieval fantasy tale for our time, one that delivers a sense of wonder that can appeal to the youngest part of ourselves that never truly dies, while digging deep into its complex themes with a style that’s bold, mature, sexy, and rewarding. There’s nothing more I can say other than it’s mind-blowing and mind-bending, pulse-pounding, fantastically epic, deeply poignant, and the very best movie of the year so far.