In retelling a classic story, The Green Knight has two disparate aims, and it displays surprising skill at hitting both: First and foremost, this is a cerebral adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, with a particular emphasis on its protagonist’s struggle between a life of comfortable mediocrity and miserable heroism. From that character study, writer-director David Lowery uses the sprawling canvas of his epic to paint an even broader contrast. Within his life of apathy and hedonism, Gawain dwells in unhinged ribaldry–screwing, drinking, and staggering his way from one day to the next. However, when our hero journeys into possible death, he bisects a barren, hostile topography, where bodies rot in field and stream and howling winds slowly hollow the earth into a medieval moonscape. Somehow, amidst this unholy combination of debauchery and moldering detritus, an insecure young man must make his way.
That’s a lot of ambition for one film, but Lowery’s combined reach and grasp actually end up serving the story well. For anyone who hasn’t read–or doesn’t remember–The Green Knight takes a fresh run at Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an epic Arthurian poem from the 14th Century. That anonymously written work centers on Gawain (Dev Patel), son of Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) and nephew to King Arthur (Sean Harris). As the film begins, Gawain lives in Dionysian obscurity. He parties hard, sleeps late, and has little regard for any greater purpose in life.
All that changes when Gawain takes his place next to Arthur and Guinevere (Kate Dickey) at a fateful Christmas dinner. Just as Arthur finishes a toast to his lords and ladies, a mysterious, mythical figure, mounted on an enchanted steed, barges into the hall and issues a challenge: The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) offers any knight the chance to land a blow upon him, with the only condition being that the Knight gets to return the favor in exactly one year’s time. Desperate to build his legacy, Gawain draws his sword and answers the Green Knight’s call. He beheads the Knight, only to see the man pluck up his severed head and march out of the hall, with a parting shot that he will see Gawain next Christmas.
For the next year, Gawain lives off of his growing reputation. Everyone may sing his praises, but Gawain feels increasingly unsure of himself. How will he react to death? How should he? As the next Christmas approaches, Gawain broodingly marches north, to very little fanfare.
The midsection of the film depicts the bizarre encounters and personal misfortune of Gawain during this odyssey to the Green Knight’s chapel. At different points, we meet a sardonic cutpurse (Barry Keoghan), a ghost in need of a favor (Erin Kellyman), and even a friendly fox, who becomes something of a sidekick and spiritual guide. Gawain’s most crucial interaction occurs when he stays with an eccentric, ebullient lord (Joel Edgerton) and his mysterious, seductive lady (Alicia Vikander). In an extended sequence, the couple tempts Gawain with an assortment of sensual and psychological games. At once, Gawain is both drawn to and confused by their energy and brilliance.
Those particular scenes, fraught with emotional tension, highlight the strengths of The Green Knight as whole. Ferociously talented actors, meticulous screenwriting, and sumptuous, jaw-dropping production values adorn this film from start to finish. Let’s break each one down in greater detail:
As Gawain, Patel projects the frustration of a man exhausted by himself. When the film begins, Gawain can’t be sure if he’s meant for glory or gluttony, but he knows it’s too wearying to stay where he is. Even when he chooses to walk the high road, Gawain still harbors the nagging suspicion that he doesn’t deserve to be part of any of this. Patel does an exceptional job playing a hero who feels the pull of cowardice. The entire film is tethered to Sir Gawain, and Patel anchors the film with the gravity of a real star.
Let me deploy a completely different metaphor: If Gawain is the central ingredient, then all of the supporting characters exist to supply the film with spice. To a person, every actor does that job con brio. Keoghan’s thief is surly, playful, and deadly. Harris shows us an older, mellower Arthur, fixated on the great man his nephew could be. Edgerton and Vikander, in tandem with Patel, conduct a master class on how to act with nuance and restraint at all the right times. I won’t be surprised to see some of these performers snag Oscar nominations for their work.
As writer and director, Lowery pays careful attention to period detail, whilst also infusing his film with modern sensibilities: Characters speak in lively, robust flourishes about lust and booze and emotional crises in a way that’s both vital and compelling. Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo provide gorgeous cinematography that fills the screen with wondrous desolation. Rolling fields of bramble and towering castles get complimented by sheets of piercing rain and billowing waves of wintry fog. I was reminded of The Lion in Winter, wherein characters shiver through their dialogue and tromp across frozen ground. Lowery does an exceptional job on conveying that same misery: We feel every bit of Gawain’s struggle as he navigates the hostile world around him.
On a closing note, I will touch on the film’s ending. Without giving anything away, Lowery closes with an abrupt flash of ambiguity. Several people in the theater exclaimed out loud: “What the hell??” The internet is already in a heated debate about it, but I suppose the internet is always in a heated debate about everything. Some viewers might be put off, but I enjoyed this conclusion. Lowery spends two hours unfurling a provocative drama, and then sends his audience out talking about it. It’s a startling, brilliant way to finish a startling, brilliant movie.
130 min. R. Currently in theaters, but will stream for one night, on August 18th. Visit A24’s website for further details.