You might have noticed that it’s been a while since I reviewed anything that came out…oh, in the last half century or so. I haven’t really had the interest or the means to do so, between working on Horror Is Universal and working on my fiction projects. Oh, and that pandemic that shut down all the movie theaters for a year. That also happened. BUT! Film on the big screen is now coming back, and I got the chance to finally see a remarkable film that I’ve been waiting over a year for.
The Plot: It’s Christmas Day in the court of Camelot, and King Arthur (Sean Harris) is holding a feast for his knights and courtiers. But the festivities are interrupted by the arrival of an unexpected guest: an imposing tree-like humanoid called the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). This knight issues a challenge to Arthur’s court: any knight brave enough to strike at him may do so, if they agree to receive a blow of equal strength in one year’s time. Arthur’s young nephew, the hotheaded Gawain (Dev Patel) steps up to the challenge and decapitates the Green Knight. But the knight merely picks up his own head and makes it clear that he expects Gawain to honor the rules of the agreement. So after one year, Gawain reluctantly sets out on a quest to find the Green Knight’s chapel and keep his appointment with destiny. Not yet a true knight, he nevertheless finds himself tested in the ideals of chivalry through encounters with bandits, restless spirits and the mind games of a mysterious lord (Joel Edgerton) and his tempting wife (Alicia Vikander). Gawain may possess a knight’s courage, but does he possess a knight’s honor?
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th-century Middle English poem based on older Welsh and Irish legends, and it’s one of the most famous stories in the Arthurian mythos. I have a confession to make, which is that I’ve not read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I’ve read other medieval epics through my high school and college years, including some other Arthurian stuff, but that particular one never came up. You’ll definitely get more out of this film if you have read the original poem. That said, it’s not required reading, because The Green Knight is ultimately a very different kind of story.
Writer and director David Lowery, best known for his 2017 film A Ghost Story and Disney’s 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, is clearly trying to deconstruct the story to an extent. He wants to make these larger-than-life characters more human and fallible, he wants to test them harder and have them possibly fail to live up to their own ideals. In fact, we see this intention start to form even before the plot gets going. The first we see of Gawain is him sleeping in on Christmas, hanging around in a brothel with his sort-of girlfriend. And when we reach the castle, Arthur himself is old and infirm, nothing like the traditional image of the heroic king. The appearance and behavior of these two characters in particular clues us in that this isn’t going to be your traditional medieval fantasy. The subtle deconstruction even extends to the casting itself. The traditionally white hero Gawain is played by an actor of Indian descent, something that ruffled a lot of feathers when the movie was first announced. This is ignoring the fact that A) “canonical” Arthurian texts like Le Mort d’Arthur do mention that the Knights of the Round Table were not all white and B) there is no single accepted version of Arthurian legends and changes/additions to the stories have been happening for literal centuries. But that’s beside the point.
Once Gawain sets out on his quest, Lowery’s goal is not to extol the virtues of this character but to humble and humiliate him. Quickly stripped of his horse and weapons, Gawain must make his journey by foot and brave the elements, occasionally with bad and undignified consequences. And when he is tested by the people he meets along the way, he often — usually, even — fails to be chivalrous. We see time and again just how capable he is of being selfish, cowardly and lustful. And yet, by reducing the tale’s hero to a person and not a chivalric ideal, Lowery’s script still teaches us something about the meaning and value of chivalry. There is a clear divide between what kind of person Gawain is and what kind of person he should be, and he strives to become the latter.
And therein lies something really clever about The Green Knight. While it is a bit cynical and critical towards its source material, it also retains the unique spark that has kept the Arthurian legends alive for centuries. Yes, the characters are human. They make mistakes and fail to live up to the rules they set out for themselves. But what’s important is that they realize the value in those ideals, and they try and learn and grow as people. This is what sets The Green Knight apart from something like the 2007 Robert Zemeckis film Beowulf, which also fits into the genre of “fantasy films with a revisionist take on medieval legends.” But Beowulf is a grimdark, macho action movie which openly mocks the heroic ideals of its source material and suggests that its cycle of protagonists are doomed to keep making the same mistakes over and over. The Green Knight, on the other hand, is much more interested in its main character’s internal journey. It’s a moody and contemplative film without much straightforward action, preferring to test its hero in other ways. It tells us that honor is just as important as courage, and that even when we fail to be honorable, you can still try to be a better person and set things right.
The Green Knight also maintains something very important about Arthurian legends, something that very few film adaptations include: these stories are fucking weird. Like, you’ll be walking through a forest or a field and randomly come across the weirdest shit you’ve ever seen in your life, and you just have to deal with it That kind of thing happens to the Knights of the Round Table all the time in the Arthurian legends. And this film does an excellent job at capturing that pervasive sense of unreality. The slow, hypnotic camerawork and surreal, symbolic visuals pull you into Gawain’s world and make you feel like anything could happen next. The Green Knight himself is a visual marvel, with makeup effects that seem to be mostly practical and an imaginative, intimidating design. He’s like if Groot could talk properly and was way scarier. His green chapel is a crumbling ruin being reclaimed by nature, and he is part of the overgrowth. The world of the movie is dark and surreal, scary and yet exciting with its wild possibilities. That’s a complicated set of feelings to evoke in an audience, and — this is gonna sound crazy, but I must be honest here — the only other Arthurian movie I’ve seen which does that really well is Monty Python & The Holy Grail. Yes, I am comparing The Green Knight to Monty Python & The Holy Grail. It’s that good.
I never had any doubt that Dev Patel would be able to pull off the role of Gawain. After all, this man’s acting career survived and thrived after The Last Airbender, a disaster that people speak of in horror to this day. And Patel is committing to this role a hundred and ten percent. His Gawain is a fascinating and memorable protagonist, with the layers of myth stripped away to reveal the humanity beneath. He’s not a seasoned hero or warrior, he’s a young man who is overly eager to prove himself and ends up way over his head. And as he nears the end of his journey, we see that he is not a stoic paragon of morality, either. Instead, he is something much more relatable: a person who is terrified of dying. This is a movie that’s not afraid to show its protagonist openly weeping as he faces the inevitability of his death. It’s powerful and heartbreaking to watch.
Obviously Patel is the main focus, but he’s not the only key player here. This is a killer cast, and most of the players get brief but memorable moments in the spotlight. Erin Kellyman, who mainstream audiences will recognize from Solo: A Star Wars Story and The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, briefly appears as Saint Winifred, the ghost of a murder victim who asks Gawain to retrieve her skull from the bottom of a pond. She gets some nice sharp lines, including a great one when Gawain wonders what he’ll get in return for helping her: “Why would you ask me that? Why would you ever ask me that?” But the other big acting centerpiece of this film is Alicia Vikander. Lowery does something with this casting that’s actually kind of genius. Vikander is initially introduced to us as Essel, Gawain’s lover back in Camelot. But in the latter half of the film, she also plays the mysterious noblewoman who tries to seduce Gawain. It adds an extra level of temptation for our protagonist that makes the whole situation a bit trickier. Vikander is great in both roles, but she’s more memorable when playing the noblewoman. At one point, she launches into a several-minute-long monologue about the color green. It’s horrifying, and I’m sure the theater kids of the world are already memorizing it like they did for Willem Dafoe’s unhinged monologue in The Lighthouse. If they’re not, they should be.
I will say this movie isn’t for everyone. The trailers make it seem more action-oriented than it really is: most of the film is slow and meditative, with the action coming in short bursts. But the thing I suspect most people will have a problem with is the last fifteen minutes. I personally think the ending of this movie is brilliant now that I’ve had time to ruminate on how it was done and what it meant, but I didn’t feel that way when I was watching it unfold before me in the theater. I won’t go into specific details here, but some people may not like how the film goes all-in on the deconstruction angle at this point. It’s a long, wordless sequence that serves as the culmination of all the themes that Lowery has been juggling so far, and its overt cynicism can be a bit hard to watch. Another thing that might not sit well with some viewers is the actual final moment of the film. It ends on an abrupt and ambiguous note that could make some viewers feel like they wasted their time or were cheated out of a satisfying resolution. Like the long sequence preceding it, it’s an ending that has to sit with you for a while before you can appreciate it. I think that the movie ends at the point where it needs to — at the end of Gawain’s internal journey — rather than the point where we expect it to end.
The Green Knight is a unique film experience. A grown-up fantasy film in every sense of the phrase, it exists in conversation with the literary work that inspired it and makes smart, provocative updates to a centuries-old tale. Despite some occasional dodgy CGI and a few scenes that could have been cut, the world of the film is visually spectacular and keeps you compelled for the whole runtime. The acting overall is magnificent, but especially from Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander. I suspect that this will turn out to be a “love it or hate it” movie, but regardless of how you feel about it, it’s a movie that you won’t soon forget.
You’ll be hearing from me again sooner rather than later. I have a special installment of Today on Project Gutenberg in the works, and I’ll be working on another movie review next week. The Suicide Squad is nearly here, and I suspect I’ll have a lot to say about it. So keep your eyes peeled!