A film review by Craig J. Koban August 31, 2021

THE GREEN KNIGHT jjjj

2021, R, 115 mins.

Dev Patel as Gawain  /  Alicia Vikander as Lady / Essel  /  Joel Edgerton as Lord  /  Sarita Choudhury as Mother  /  Sean Harris as King  /  Kate Dickie as Queen  /  Barry Keoghan as Scavenger  /  Erin Kellyman as Winfred  /  Ralph Ineson as Green Knight

Written and directed by David Lowery

 

 

 

Very few medieval fantasies have such a hauntingly dreamlike aura like David Lowery's masterfully revisionist take on Camelot, THE GREEN KNIGHT.  

Loosely based on the 14th Century story poem SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT - but remaining honorable to the source text while carving out a deconstructivist slant to it - Lowery has made a dazzling and hallucinogenic trip of a movie here, and one that continues to show the startling evolution of a mature filmmaking talent.  THE GREEN KNIGHT could not be anymore different than his last few films, like the fact based period crime drama THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, or one of the best remakes and family entertainments of recent memory in PETE'S DRAGON, or the ultra low budget and slow burn horror drama A GHOST STORY, one of the most beguiling portraits of the afterlife that I've ever seen.  There have been interpretations of this fantasy material before, but none done with this film's transformatively hypnotizing grandeur. 

Perhaps best of all is the commendably inclusive casting of the main protagonist here in Dev Patel - giving one of his most robust performances of his career - as Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur who finds himself on a dangerous and spiritual quest to face off against his titular adversary.  Patel's inclusion here seems pitch perfectly fitting with the overall atypical and genre transcending approach that Lowery utilizes here.  Gawain lives with his mother (Sarita Choudhury) and has a spirited relationship with a local lass named Essel (Alicia Vikander).  During one fateful and seemingly ordinary Christmas Day, Gawain and company are greeted by the sudden appearance of The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a hulking and lumbering creature that looks like a cross between the Ents from THE LORD OF THE RINGS and Swamp Thing, and with the bassy vocal timbre of Groot from GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.  

This tree bark skinned monstrous giant offers up an challenge: If anyone can wound him in combat then he'll relinquish his mystical axe for the remainder of the next year.  

There's one hefty price and catch for success, though: The winner must return with the axe to the Green Knight twelve months later and the Knight will perform the same move on him.  

Gawain accepts the challenge with enthusiasm and gritty determination, and he does manage to behead The Green Knight.  The beast doesn't die, though.  It causally picks up its decapitated head, walks over to Gawain, hands him his axe, and then ominously tells him, "I'll see you in a year's time."  

This might be the worst Christmas gift granted to a character in movie history. 

 

 

This stunningly effective prologue is but a taste of what THE GREEN KNIGHT then offers up to viewers, which then delves into Gawain's epic quest to make the arduously long journey to meet back up with The Green Knight at his Green Chapel residence so that the tree-like creature can reciprocate the blow that took his head, which would obviously lead to Gawain's very instant death.  Unfazed by the prospects of having his trek led to him unavoidably being six feet under,  Gawain is driven by pure honor and duty to make it the Knight, but along the way he has multiple setbacks and roadblocks on top of meeting up with a wild menagerie of characters along the way, like a petty scavenger played by DUNKIRK's Barry Koeghan, a mysterious young woman played by Erin Kellyman, and a lord that may or may not be fully on the record, played by Joel Edgerton.  One of the most intoxicating aspects of THE GREEN KNIGHT is how it teases the nature of reality within the film.  Broken up into book-like chapters to give the feel of a piece of literature come to life, Lowery teases and plays with the authenticity of what Gawain experiences along his travels, and at times the blurring between the real and unreal becomes so hazy that we're left wondering whether or not Gawain is hallucinating or is actually experiencing the strange fantastical sights that befall him.  As a medieval road trip picture, so to speak, none of THE GREEN KNIGHT slavishly adheres to any obligatory storytelling structure or momentum, and in the process keeps audience members aloof and off balance throughout. 

And very much like his greatest film to date in A GHOST STORY, THE GREEN KNIGHT is a methodically slow simmering boil as far as its narrative momentum goes, which allows us to become even more fully entrenched within Gawain's whole treacherous mission.  Complimenting this aesthetic approach is how much visual poetry that Lowery brings to the proceedings.  This is not a VFX and action heavy fantasy (although the film does include its own share of thanklessly good effects and action beats), but the imagery that Lowery conjures up here - that becomes both lyrical and disorienting in equal measure - does a bravura job of encapsulating Gawain's mental and physical challenges that he experiences throughout.  A lot of THE GREEN KNIGHT takes place at night, and the moody cinematography manages to bring a sense of uneasy immediacy, not to mention that the film does an exemplary job of amalgamating practical location shooting with convincing visual effects and sumptuous costume and production design.  Lowery litters the film with so many unforgettable moments, like one involving Gawain slowly galloping through a corpse riddled and smoky battlefield that's as eerie as they come, or, my personal favorite, a sequence involving him having a weird and surreal close encounter with a clan of naked wandering giants.  The ambitiousness of this film to fully harness its epic offbeat nature is quite remarkable.

And Patel, as alluded to earlier, is so incredibly well utilized here playing a very unconventional leading man action hero as far as fantasy pictures go.  The London-born actor is not the muscle-bound and square jawed leading man type, nor is he the embodiment of an indestructible super man hero that usually dominates these type of genre films.  No, the secret to his superb casting is that he's allowed to tap into the conflicted psychology of this damaged character more, making this sword and axe swinging protagonist more relatably vulnerable.  And Gawain is not always presented here as an unwaveringly courageous or even smart knight (he sometimes commits cardinal blunders and at other times comes off as downright cowardly). He also might be the most perpetually confused and tormented fantasy hero to grace the screen, which certainly mirrors viewer confusion as to what's transpiring on the screen.  Patel's is simply outstanding here in his taxing role, as is Vikander, who gets to sink her teeth into not one, but two characters here and his given individual moments to shine and remind us as to why she won an Oscar years ago. 

THE GREEN KNIGHT's real artistic coup de grace is that it never easily spoon feeds us a fantasy story in easily digestible, audience placating bites.  It forges its own highly unique and eccentric recpie as both a understated art house indie and an absorbing and epically staged visual feast that can easily rival any other big budget fare from this year.  There's very little, if anything, mainstream and conventional about Lowery's choices, and for those that naively go into his film expecting a perfunctory tale of swashbuckling chivalry, intrepid heroes, dastardly villains, and routine human versus monster donnybrooks then you may be in for serious disappointment.  It's more illusory and ethereal in its approach, and Lowery is confident and smart enough to know that the key to separating his fantasy far apart from countless others is in respecting the patience and attention spans of his audience while never explicitly explaining away every strange occurrence that happens here.  This is a fascinatingly complex interpretation of well traveled folklore, and part of what makes it so exhilarating to sit through is that it takes Arthurian legend and radically alters it from the top down while honing in on elements that we are familiar with.  I simply loved how THE GREEN KNIGHT dared to challenge my preconceived notions of the material, and once I drank in this film's Kool-Aid I just couldn't pull away and was all in, yearning for a bigger taste.  

In a relative cinematic age when Hollywood places head shaking levels of prominence on sequels, remakes, and regurgitating past pioneering success and pathetically trying to pass them on as something new, it's really empowering to witness a filmmaker like Lowery bucking stale status quos and audaciously aiming to look at old tales via a new viewfinder and lens.  As a piece of visionary revisionism, THE GREEN KNIGHT is an intoxicating beast of a fantasy that further shows why its Merlin behind the camera is working in a league uniquely his own.

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