If you come to The Green Knight expecting a conventional, Hollywood-minded take on Arthurian legend, you should know you’re mistaken within the first few minutes. Falling snow and ash litter the screen against a backdrop of misty fog, setting a somber tone from the jump. From there, you’re taken on a relatively quiet, meditative journey that is anything but linear. This isn’t King Arthur by way of arthouse cinema. This is King Arthur with narrative grace, as opposed to past installments that pillaged the material and left the swords and carnage.
The Green Knight isn’t really about King Arthur at all, for that matter. Adapted from the 14th century chivalric romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, writer/director David Lowery almost exclusively focuses on Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), and the son of Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury). The first time we meet Gawain, he is in a brothel visiting his lover (Alicia Vikander) just before arriving home for a Christmas banquet. He claims to his mother that he’s been at mass all night. “Were you drinking the Sacrament?” she quips after smelling booze and lust on his suit.
At the banquet, Gawain is immediately puzzled by the fact that he’s permitted to sit alongside Arthur and Guinevere. Just as Arthur asks to hear a tale, one unfolds before the eyes of the dozen attendees. The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a half-man, half-tree sore for sight eyes, bursts through the hall doors and incites “The Christmas Game.” He challenges any of Arthur’s knights to strike him. If they can, the knight will be rewarded with his imposing axe. But as legends have so often shown us, such a reward comes with a cost. A year hence, the knight must trek to the Green Chapel where the Green Knight will bestow the exact same strike given to him the Christmas prior.
Without much hesitation given the circumstances, Gawain steps forward and beheads the Green Knight, who without much emotion, proceeds to pick up his disembodied head just before riding off in laughter. The countdown towards Gawain’s fate begins.
The bulk of The Green Knight follows Sir Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel. Interesting characters pop up throughout the trip, including a scavenger (played by an animated Barry Keoghan), a mysterious virgin martyr (Erin Kellyman), and a friendly Lord (Joel Edgerton).
After wrestling with the film’s dialog and pace for the first 30 minutes, I slowly began to appreciate Lowery’s structure. Like a classic poem, The Green Knight is open to a barrage of interpretations. Its vignette-structure — which always circles back to Sir Gawain walking through large, open fields despite the inevitable interruptions — is reminiscent of stanzas. This journey is a long and disorienting one, sometimes suggesting it being a dream as it’s so deeply centered on Sir Gawain and his quest to be honorable for once in his life.
Because this story is just as much about a mental battle as it is a physical expedition, it’s only right that Dev Patel gives a career-performance as King Arthur’s nephew. Patel is challenged with conveying a lot of emotions through his eyes and body language. No moment highlights this better than when Arthur lectures Gawain at the Christmas banquet after his nephew claims he doesn’t have a signature story to tell. Though his dialog is limited, you can sense the hurt and reflection in Patel’s eyes, something he maintains over the course of the film.
Patel’s Gawain is someone who has lived his life with a certain amount of entitlement. His freewheeling approach to life suggests he sees knighthood as something that happens over time versus something one makes happen through their actions. He yearns for a passion, as he tells Arthur in the aforementioned conversation, and he wants to partake in something bigger than himself. When the Green Knight storms in, there lies his opportunity. He’ll become an honorable man willing to face the consequences of his actions and live a life worth retelling. Even if it kills him.
It’s worth noting that Sean Harris is a damn-good King Arthur; one you’ve never seen before. He’s sickly and worn, with a croaking voice that is unrecognizable given the confident display of bravado we’ve seen from past cinematic iterations of the character. The contextualization of the Arthurian monarch showing their age on top of their diminishing control in contrast with the paganist blunt-force exhibited by the Green Knight highlights a tension that’s palpable, growing only more noticeable as the color green becomes so prominent during Gawain’s trek. It’s as if the Green Knight is everywhere, encroaching not only on Gawain’s psyche but the land itself.
Lowery’s reserved pacing allows for the remarkable technical elements of The Green Knight to be moved to the forefront. His frequent partner Daniel Hart handles the score, successfully marrying the narrative with delightful folklore. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo casts a visual scheme onto the film that’s equal parts hypnotic and attuned to the luscious environments we traverse along with Gawain. Mossy greens suggest not only the presence of the titular brute but that of Mother Nature. Gawain manages to appear small amidst these backdrops; something he seems to become more consciously aware of the longer he’s on-foot. Sometimes in your quest to become stronger, you start to recognize your insignificance. Vikander has a speech late in the film that ties that message together. We came from dirt and we’ll return to it soon enough. But will anyone tell our tale? Will it be one even worth telling?
David Lowery’s resistance to spoonfeed his audiences digestible themes and find beauty in weirdness are just a few of the attributes that make him one of my favorite directors. It’s what made his film A Ghost Story my favorite film of 2018. The beauty within his pictures is their open-endedness. The Green Knight feels more wayward than A Ghost Story, which was comparatively tighter (not to mention executed on a much smaller scale). I’m willing to bet Lowery would say the occasional madness you might feel trying to follow the film is part of the journey. The patient will emerge rewarded with one of the most immersive stories to be released this year.
NOTE: The Green Knight is now playing exclusively in theaters.
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Ralph Ineson, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, and Joel Edgerton. Directed by: David Lowery.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality in North Central Illinois. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!