A24 delivers once again with a haunting and challenging deconstruction of the hero’s journey
David Lowery’s The Green Knight is hypnotic in the way it uses its poetic visuals to beguile and perplex viewers. It can be a strange and at times frustrating experience due to the film’s purported ambiguity; one of those movies that practically demands repeat watches and becomes all the more richer once you’ve had time to think on its themes and calculated, beautiful imagery. For anyone who’s grown weary of the seemingly endless conveyor belt of generic action-packed medieval tales of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, Lowery has delivered something genuinely fresh, inspired, and challenging.
Based on the famous 14th-century poem Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight, the film opens on the blithe and unkempt Gaiwan (Dev Patel) after yet another evening of raucous merriment. As he stumbles out of the brothel he spent the night in with a woman named Essel (Alicia Vikander), Gaiwan is as content as one can be. After all, he’s the nephew of the great King Arthur (Sean Harris), who is set to host a feast on this fine Christmas Day – and perhaps finally grant Gaiwan the honor of knighthood.
Patel plays Gaiwan with just the right of amount of self-important arrogance – the kind of empty bravado that immediately crumples the second he’s invited to his uncle’s side to share a story of his adventures. Gaiwan, clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable, awkwardly mumbles that he has no real stories to tell. How could he be expected to uphold the duties of a knight when he hasn’t so much as journeyed beyond the walls of Camelot, fought any battles, or experienced much else besides the joys of women and drinking?
Call it destiny, doom, the arrival of manhood, call it whatever you’d like, but Gaiwan’s life finally begins upon the abrupt entrance of the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), an intimidating ent-like man who barges into the court with a challenge: Should anyone be able to land a blow on him, he will grant them possession of his mighty axe. But there’s a catch. Whoever steps up the challenge must meet the knight at his home, the Green Chapel, exactly one year from now and receive an equal blow in return. Gaiwan finally sees the opportunity for glory and jumps at the chance to prove himself in front of the king. He rashly accepts the challenge and beheads the Green Knight, only for the mysterious being to promptly stand back up and remind Gaiwan of the second part of the game before departing.
The film speeds through the ensuing year, showing how Gaiwan gains considerable notoriety in Camelot and squanders him time away drinking and partying. He’s particularly ill-prepared for when the day quickly arrives where he must journey to the Green Chapel, but at the pressing of his uncle and mother (Sarita Choudhury), he sets off on a fantastical quest that involve giants, ghosts, talking foxes, and constant danger. It’s the classic hero’s journey, where Gaiwan – who professes to only be looking for honor – must prove his worth to himself and others and go from boy to man. But Lowery takes this standard idea and almost completely deconstructs it, along with the source material itself, to weave a trance-inducing critical examination of masculinity and virility.
Beautifully haunting cinematography from Andrew Droz Palermo, tremendous sound design from Johnny Marshall, and impeccable production design from Jade Healy (all of whom Lowery has collaborated with before) combine to make The Green Knight, a $15 million dollar movie, feel just as grand if not grander than most big name $200 million blockbusters today. Gaiwan’s adventure is rife with gorgeous, epic, and oftentimes dark imagery that’s constantly serving the character’s inner journey. He faces various trials that are laced with temptations in order to test his chivalry, loyalty, and generosity. Sequences range from being chilling to spiritual to just plain bizarre and everything in between.
It’s the kind of unusual and always unpredictable style that A24 has become famous for – the kind of film that manage to stick in your mind and make you contemplate it even if you don’t quite fully understand it at first. Everything and everyone here is operating at one hundred percent, and the film’s final half hour is likely the finest moment in Lowery’s already impressive career, having previously helmed A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun, and Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon. A new and refreshingly different bar has now been set for all forthcoming Arthurian adaptations and similar works.
‘The Green Knight’ is now playing in theaters.