The Green Knight mainly sells itself as a high-octane, A24 fantasy epic featuring the underappreciated leading-man talents of Dev Patel. And that’s mostly accurate, except in this case, high-octane has almost nothing to do with the standard, Arthurian aesthetic of massive-scale battles and winning the day through might and magic. But it is, still, a force of nature.
Instead, David Lowery’s deliciously spell-binding, counter-culture shock narrative in The Green Knight is decisively meditative and action-packed without all that much action. It’s an existential character study with the style of a coastal-designer music video in medieval cosplay, and the fact that these ideas don’t just go together but soar together is one of the few, genuine triumphs of innovative filmmaking to be found in 2021 thus far.
It turns out there’s still plenty of creativity and emotional stakes to be mined from the furiously picked over lore of King Arthur and his roundtable. The Green Knight openly advertises itself as a loose adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, an anonymously-written poem that has long been considered an uncomfortable sticking point for religious authors and perhaps filmmakers who aren’t all that interested in tackling the spiritual politics between Christianity and the pagan roots of British folklore. Thank god (or gods?) for David Lowery.
Getting into the story, albeit intentionally briefly, Dev Patel portrays Sir Gawain, a young and brash nephew of the aging King Arthur, who one day decides to stop squandering his royal potential and take on a direct challenge from the emerald-skinned, devil-incarnate Green Knight. But there’s a catch to this game, and though Gawain finds himself the victor, he must journey to the mythical Green Chapel in a year’s time to confront his certain death.
This is no hero’s journey, at least like any you’ve seen before. Gawain encounters a gritty series of cold-blooded, witchcraft-incensed trials that would make Geoffrey Chaucer’s stomach churn. And it can’t be stressed enough that this is not a movie aiming to be a crowd-pleasing spectacle, yet it’s still a spectacle, all the same.
If anything, The Green Knight is an anti-blockbuster of the modern age, avant-garding its way through the tired plot structures of sword-wielding knights who only seem capable of personal growth when besting someone else in a trite contest of skill. Gawain is a far more fascinating, meditative subject, for all his flaws, and there are certainly many to be had. Lowery’s striking vision of a barren, Saxon wilderness dressed in patches of vibrant, green moss calls back to the paradox of his previous film, A Ghost Story, which uncomfortably blended the nihilism of death with the warmth of life. In this case, the pause-button, frame-worthy imagery on display here is almost impossible to undersell, and it’s all leading somewhere moving and purposeful.
The Green Knight also has its own revolving door of supporting characters with lives and backstories passing Gawain, and the audience, by with little exposition needed. Some of the meatier roles to chew on belong to Alicia Vikander as Gawain’s dignified, low-born lover in one of her best roles to date (yes, rivaling Ex Machina), as well as Sean Harris playing a far wearier, wisdom-imparting King Arthur than the legends tend to claim. Even Joel Edgerton, given only a handful of scenes, makes a full meal out of his part, and all of it is in service to a story about one man unable to accept the finality of life and perhaps also the one after.
It’s hard to settle on a comprehensive series of adjectives to properly describe The Green Knight and that’s certainly a sign of how exciting the film is in the midst of this noisy summer movie season. In some ways it’s a fantasy opera with the cerebral fixations of an Andrei Tarkoksvy sci-fi. But it’s never so abstract it comes off as indulgent or insecure about its own inspirations.
Though its central character meanders quite a bit, the script stays purely focused. Lowery guides it all with a fox, metaphorically or otherwise, anchoring this ethereal tale with grounded, real-world stakes for all its mystical atmosphere. And it’s hard imagine anyone but Dev Patel breathing such complex life into this moody, unlikable-on-paper character who in too many ways is a bit like all of us.