‘The Green Knight’ will get medieval on your ass

click to enlarge Dev Patel stars as Gawain, nephew to King Arthur.  - A24
Dev Patel stars as Gawain, nephew to King Arthur. 

Less translating than revising a medieval story as it moves a warrior's tale from page to screen, The Green Knight presents its antagonist and title character (played by Ralph Ineson) as a wry, paternal, plant-based monument. Like all monuments, his existence — like the film's — makes a claim to being worthy of consideration and contemplation, often towering above the concerns of its lead.

The Green Knight wears this self-conscious mantle with some fleeting charm, evoking the almost-funny ironic stylings of a winking dad. The film's writer and director, David Lowery (A Ghost Story, Pete's Dragon), proves less reverent toward the anonymously penned source material than his own sparsely modernized, lumberingly sly dialogue. Casting Dev Patel in the leading role of Gawain, the film offers up hardly any of the violence suggested by its saturated blood-drips and metal stylings. Turning away from the rounds of wooing and formalized courtship that comprise much of the (strongly Christian) source text, Lowery focused instead on more pagan-inspired but largely secular meditations on virtue, desire, and a life's trajectory in an unforgiving land. As in A Ghost Story (also from A24), which cast its gaze toward the philosophical and metaphysical in perhaps the most general, self-flattering manner you could imagine (the director's stand-in, hardly a character, is martyred early), that movie longs — like this one — for peace, and for a kind of religion without any gods.

The narrative's thin, strong spine — from which it meanders in short episodes or "chapters" — stretches from one Christmas to the next. The towering, inhuman Green Knight rides into the King's court to offer his knights a challenge, quite plainly a trick: Whoever takes it up may strike him as they like, but in a year they must find him at the Green Chapel to let him return the blow. Gawain, the King's unproven, unknighted nephew, rashly takes it up; most of the film from there documents his voyage almost a year later, to the Chapel so that the Knight may strike him back.

Implicit in this as in the source text are questions of honor, duty, and valor — which meet their more contemporary analogues in questions of honesty, ambition, and integrity, particularly with respect to questions of both romantic fidelity and fame. The Green Knight fairly floats above this first batch of notions, gesturing through dialogue early that it knows both more and better than not only the text's characters but its long-dead originators. Fairly discarding the original tale's tests of Gawain's religious and moral virtue (in one scene, a religious icon is pointedly smashed), the film watches its deceptively upright leading man stumble through his quest across a range of mountains, creeks, and misty highlands less for any clear reward than due to his own aimlessness in the face of public pressure.

Within the film's context, the faultiness in this proves nakedly plain — and proves so early. Watching Gawain shiver in mountain caves or wade through marshes with only a distractingly animated CG fox for company, the question of any audience save the viewer becomes — if not absent — totally abstract. In a more tactile, immediate work that got at the pressures of survival in the face of physical peril, Green Knight's existential questions could slip away or remold themselves before the gravity of lived experience — as in Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. But as the film stands, its quest feels more aimless than even Gawain at its open: a kind of aesthetic tourism that's only so productive.

While Green Knight's protagonist, art direction, and costuming look scruffily elegant, cool, and fine, its post-house visual effects make a mess of both them and its Irish landscapes, squeezing the color from its images until portions of them look juiced and irradiated, enveloping fields of grass in an unsettling, artificial glow. (This may stem from Lowery's long career as an editor — he's used to doing a lot in post). Its philosophical questions feel just as disconnected from Gawain's quest as from reality, making its events less a series of artfully undertaken expressions or investigations than a procession of hobbyist teases and homage. Evoking an adventuresome, modern attitude toward both violence and sexuality with Patel's rakish, quite winning style, what Lowery keeps or captures here remains mannered, even repressed, on both counts, excising provocations and projecting an air of import through framing and through light. Peppered with a few brief, tepid sex scenes but many more suggestions of romance throughout, Lowery's approach feels too prudish and tidy to consummate anything with the kinds of questions it spends its runtime courting. Lighting every face on-screen like a half-moon and playing steady strings and chants across long pauses, Green Knight's formalism feels scripted, inexpressive in the end.

Much of this stems from Lowery's tendency toward vagary, an audience-conscious, cultivated ambiguity. As with many works produced or distributed via A24 (see also Hereditary, Euphoria, and Uncut Gems), finding ways to invite "conversation" among viewers seems to be the task at hand. Any loving-or-leaving charged response in the context affirms their films' import, even significance, making each the kind of work one "has to see."

Lowery, despite his hero's arc, seems all too tempted by this, refusing or unable to give life or adequately grounded texture to a world and story it feels like it's above. In a text more committed to its existential questions, the hero wouldn't need a cartoon fox companion; on the contrary, he'd have to face up to them alone. But Lowery, in populating his film with winks, insertions, and even a moralizing, garbled, and out-of-place environmentalist screed, can't simply live with Knight's hero, its source text, or the questions they both ask without thinking constantly of his audience. Revealing himself in more and less flattering ways than he'd surely wish to, Lowery has proved time and again that it's possible to be self-conscious — even to be Conscious — without being remotely self-aware.

Film Details

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