It is Christmas, and King Arthur (Sean Harris) is in his court, his queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) to one side, and to the other, his nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) — who, just that morning, woke up in a brothel; who has not yet done any great deeds; who feels inadequate in such esteemed company as King Arthur’s court, with its storied, noble celebrants, all of them legends in the flesh, with stories to tell. It’s a Christmas feast like any other, for the knights of the round table, but for an unexpected guest. The Green Knight: villain, fantasy, brute. A man with skin seemingly rent of wizened tree bark and a rich baritone of a voice (that of Ralph Ineson) that would seem fit for symphony halls but for the fact that it vibrates with some unaccountable, earthen quality, a rumbling from the bowels of the unknown. The Green Knight looks the way a swamp smells, verdant but suffocating — only heavier, more rigid. Despite all of this, he has ostensibly come in peace. It is a time for celebration, after all. And he has come to play a game.
David Lowery’s new film, The Green Knight, is an adaptation of the wonderful 14th-century chivalric poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, only, in the nature of many of the best adaptations, it revises the material freely, leaning into a revisionism that amounts to a daring act of interpretation. Lopping the titular hero off the title, letting the villain of this quest loom as the sole bearer of the movie’s name, is one hint of that, though like so much of what Lowery does with his source material, it largely heightens an idea that the poem had already asserted. Heroes and villains — figures of note — get titles. The Sir Gawain at the start of this film, as of the poem, is no such figure. Not yet.
Hence the slick curiosity of the game that the Green Knight has come to these decorated halls — full, in theory, of worthy men — to play. A beheading game, as it’s known: a hero-making ordeal that is also, deliciously, a guarantor of death or something close to it. It goes like this. Take the Green Knight’s giant axe, deal him a fearsome blow, and in a year and a day’s time, meet him on his own grounds, at the Green Chapel — he will not give directions; you’ll have to journey into the wilds to find him — to return his axe. At which point, he will return the blow — the same blow — in kind.
The Green Knight creaks and crackles with the cumbersome heft of an animate tree trunk, yet is somehow light, witty in intention if not in tone, and all the more terrifying for the lively spark in his eyes — the devious tell of a born trickster. No reasonable person, no proven hero with nothing to prove, would take him up on such a deal. But Gawain — not a boy, yet not a knight with any tales worth telling — volunteers, eager to make something of himself. And so The Green Knight proceeds with the first of its many startling, titillating, unreal scenes. The Green Knight sets down his arms and takes a knee in front of Gawain, his head low, as if to make an offering of his neck. Gawain takes the blow. The Green Knight’s head is summarily lopped off. What — this easy? So much for returning the axe … Only, in the next moment, the mysterious man stands up, grabs his head — eyes atwinkle — and gallops away, cackling like a villain. It all seems to happen so fast, the Green Knight’s laughter echoing with a tone of, See you next year.
A trickster; a trick. So begins this unusual journey, one oft referenced and retold in the centuries since the appearance of the poem, whose author remains unknown. Rarely has it been revisited as disarmingly, nor as movingly, as in Lowery’s The Green Knight. It is a strange film from the start, riddled with the sparks that have animated Lowery’s work from the beginning of his career. One of his angles on this story is the power, the danger, of stories in themselves — as the movie makes clear early on. Already, in the aftermath of his odd victory over the Green Knight, Gawain’s daring act has become lore, a chivalric tale told and retold in puppet shows, to gaggles of wide-eyed medieval children. It’s a victory that doesn’t quite feel like one, in Lowery’s depiction; those puppet shows end with a cliffhanger, as everyone knows the clock is ticking and, though he takes to celebration rather than rumination and accordingly makes a bit of an ass of himself in the ensuing year, Gawain has yet to complete the game. He has yet to fulfill the full promise of this ready-made legend.
Patel, who’s always good but is a wonder here as equal parts vulnerable man-in-the-making and flagrant ass, lives up to the vexation of this ordeal in most every frame. The Green Knight’s challenge places a great weight upon him. It is a karmic wheel, a call in wait of its necessary response. With it comes both an idea of Gawain, the hero, that the young man blithely accepts and enjoys, as well as the undeniable truth of the imminent unknown. This game promises a future — a climax, a neck for a neck. But what is Gawain to make of such a future?
The themes of the original Sir Gawain and the Green Knight have, over years of scholarship and rereading, very much been subject to interpretation. Chivalry, temptation, Christianity, nature’s devilish mix of predictable, seasonal progress and vast uncertainty — even latent feminism — have all been lobbed at the text as explanations for its peculiar essence. It’s hard to imagine adding yet another dimension of interpretation to a 14th-century Arthurian gest such as this. What Lowery, his actors, and a team of sublimely visionary collaborators — the film’s cinematographer (Andrew Droz Palermo), costumers, VFX specialists, set designers, the eerily provocative score — instead offer are at times surprising revisions and riffs on the original story, slick forays that heighten the mysteries of the material. It’s the setting of the clock — the hard-wired sense of time built into the Green Knight’s challenge — that stands out among the many ideas ricocheting through this story. Time: a notion Lowery has played with before, most blatantly in A Ghost Story, in which the situation of the ghost, its dreaded lack of mortality, allows it to shoot forward, into a corporatized future, and back, to America’s primordial stains.
Time is what gives The Green Knight much of its unusual power — which is itself unusual, as an artistic feat, as Arthurian legends and their ilk have already leant themselves to so much sword-and-shield costume fare and, more rarely, genuine forays into fizzy and overwhelming fever dreams, like John Boorman’s splashy, maximalist, unhinged Excalibur. This being a Lowery tale, the monolithic, the overwhelming, are only more powerful for being rendered in intimate, miniaturized terms. The creepiness creeps just that much more; fear is heightened; fantasies, mysteries tingle with a sense of the unpredictable. When the time comes to set out on his journey to the Green Chapel (it should go without saying that, knowing what awaits him, Gawain perhaps procrastinates) our young hero finds himself trapped in a fantasy that may unmake him before he even reaches his destination. Here there be giants. A fox talks. Marauding thieves, among them a real stinker played by Barry Keoghan, almost cut Gawain’s journey tragically short. A headless woman asks a favor: Please sir, can you help me find my head? Which is to say nothing of the bizarre lust triangle Gawain stumbles into with a pair of lordly swingers.
All of which suits this particular filmmaker’s style and attitudes. I tend to think of Lowery as a master of lore and myth, no matter the subject, and of his films as testaments to the almost childlike wonders such stories can inspire in us. His gangster tale Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) is memorable for telling a familiar story, not as if the audience has never heard it before, but as if the teller has never before had an audience. The excitement is in the telling, the mythologizing of history in the very moment of its making, which lends a hushed but grand, intimate but vast, nearly spiritual twinge to each image. The Old Man & the Gun (2018), about an old-timer whose bank robberies are so consistently humane that even the victims and his pursuers — the bank tellers, cops, and the rest — seem to get swept up in the story of this disarming elderly man who, played by a wonderful Robert Redford, practically charms each bank’s money out of the vault. It’s no wonder Lowery was such a keen fit for Disney’s Pete’s Dragon and that tale’s many tactile, magical wonders, its child hero whose adventures are less notable for being matters of plot than for being beholden to the boy’s own sense of constant discovery. Lowery is slated to direct Peter Pan & Wendy (2022) next — an apt choice.
As source texts go, so is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as if the Texas-based Lowery were signaling a transition from films about recent or invented mythologies to capital-F folklore, a storied, studied, fully-ingrained tale, the bedrock of an entire and highly persistent genre. King Arthur is one of Western culture’s most identifiable heroes. Yet even here, Lowery fashions the man as a hero with a soft touch. Harris’ King Arthur comes off as a man making up for lost time, a man going out of his way to make something of his flailing and misguided nephew. “Remember,” he says with a knowing look, “it is only a game.” Later, Gawain asks, “Why do you hold me to this light?” — why try to make something of me, who is nothing? “Is it wrong to want greatness for you?” Arthur asks.
What The Green Knight supposes is: Maybe! It’s Gawain’s lover, Esel — one of the few roles to date to give Alicia Vikander a chance to flex both her winning sincerity and her intriguingly subtle cunning — who steps in with a voice approaching something like reason. “Why greatness? Why is goodness not enough?” This is a question with the power to snuff all legend of its power; greatness is the gas in legend’s engine. But it’s Gawain’s mediocrity, rooted in Patel’s chittering performance, that The Green Knight seizes on a delight that would seem vicious if not for being rendered so sensitively. The tone allows the movie to make good on another, less easily described notion, too: a knowingness both omniscient, on the director’s part, and suspicious on the part of the film’s characters. Once again, time, as an idea, proves pertinent. Look for the moments in which the camera pans counterclockwise, taking in a scene and, at times, tracking extraordinary shifts in nature and humanity — in time and its flow — as it spins. This is a Lowery trick, a bit of a flourish, but one done in concert with the source material, which makes a point of assigning a robust sense of personality to nature and time, to the point that they feel like co-conspirators, enforcers of fate. Lowery’s camera spins and the world changes. It happens more than once, which feels risky for such a blatant bit of style. But every time it happens — and especially the last time it happens — something in the world breaks and, simultaneously, something is made.
That tone in Arthur’s voice: Is it wrong to want greatness for you? It’s echoed by a certain look in the eyes of Gawain’s enchantress mother, played by a wondrous Sarita Choudhury, whose demeanor seems to say everything in the midst of her saying nothing; those pulling the strings often need say nothing. There’s a certain conspiratorial something at the edges of this movie, a wafting odor of subtext to its sense of cause and effect. Pair this, too, with the doubled roles of Vikander: Esel in one portion of the film, and the Lady, wife of Joel Edgerton’s Lord, in another. Theirs is the penultimate dash of mystery in the run-up to Gawain’s final encounter, the heart of its veering into themes of temptation. And yet they, like the talking fox, the pregnant giants, the visions of past and future, provide neither clear solutions nor their vapid lack. They more cannily put the story in tension with its through-going interest in Gawain’s self-discovery, providing raw material for our hero to contemplate and contest without necessarily arriving at true understanding.
It’s the Green Knight himself, in the end, who provides that clarity. And it’s there in the Green Chapel, where Gawain confronts his fate, that Lowery’s imagination is most brilliantly on display. What is ostensibly the narrative climax begins, counterintuitively, as an exercise in patient dwelling, a slow-building study set in a kingdom of nature, overwhelmed by natural sounds, the scent of wet rock practically leaking into the theater. It culminates in a classic Lowery rejiggering of time — with an added dash of playful cynicism. Whether Gawain completes the Green Knight’s game in due course is not exactly beside the point. But nor is it the period capping off the winding ramble of a sentence that this film provides. It’s what Gawain sees when he arrives at this cavern of stone and brush, to the foot of the Green Knight’s throne that solidifies the point. (And, as feats of set design go, the Green Chapel is — it cannot go unmentioned — astonishing.) Gawain arrives as promised, and what does the Green Knight do? He makes him wait. And then he enables the young man to see all of this, the whole world that the film and his journey have built thus far, for what it really is.
It’s the question, the purpose of legend that Lowery seems to be after, with all its correlative questions of time and its vexations, the impermanence of life (as opposed to the duration of myth), the hard promises of death (as opposed to the felicities of what may come after). Esel asks the question aloud, but Lowery, we realize, has been asking it all along. Why greatness? Why is goodness — contra myth, and importance, and valor — not enough? It may just be a game, as King Arthur says. But Lowery’s Green Knight seems poised, not unlike the Green Knight himself, to make a man of its hero, rather than a hero of a man. In the end, if goodness has proven not to be enough, the Gawain of this film will most certainly wish that it had. The Green Knight — an epic in miniature, a fantasy all the more poignant for its moral realities — makes this a lesson worth learning.