The key to unlocking the cinematic potential of a well-known legend, and Lowery kept this well in mind, is to embrace the uncertainty which envelops them. Sir Gawain is among the members of the Round Table shrouded in great contradiction. In some retellings, he is considered as an elite member of the chivalric order serving King Arthur, possessing a particularly close bond with his uncle, the king himself. He may best be characterized as the ideal knight - loyal to the throne, compassionate to those of lesser fortune, courteous to his comrades, and a formidable warrior with near mythic strength. Other portrayals of Gawain are less flattering. In some texts, he serves as a vindictive or even downright villainous rogue whose vices and moral failures lead to the downfall of the Round Table and his own death at the hands of Sir Lancelot. Therefore, any attempt to adapt the story of Sir Gawain must reconcile with this deep uncertainty. Is the story better served by the gallant hero, or the inept nephew?
Lowery boldly decides to reject both those ideas. His Gawain (played to perfection by Dev Patel, more on that later) is hardly a knight at all; he’s just a young boy. We are introduced to our protagonist as he wakes up drunk in a brothel, too hungover even to participate in Christmas mass, only showing up in the end to impress his paramour. He stumbles to his castle and his disapproving mother (Sarita Choudhury) a sodden mess and readies himself for a feast at King Arthur’s court. Clad in fine wares, the debonair prince finally looks more the part of a knight, but notably absent the fierce dispositions and weathered countenances of his fellow Round Table comrades. While quietly enjoying the feast, the king (Sean Harris, in top form) surprisingly calls for him. In a moment of sublime tenderness, the aged king confesses to his heir that they have not had the relationship they should have had from the very beginning, a source of regret for the great monarch. He asks his nephew to sit at his side and regale him with some tale so that they may now bond. Gawain, clearly moved by this admission from his king, searches his mind for such a yarn but confesses that he has none to tell. He feels deep unease that amongst all the legends surrounding him, he alone is present due to family ties, with no feats or glory to his name. As these dual concessions are given, a beautiful track tugs at the heartstrings (‘Tell Me A Tale of Yourself, So That I Might Know Thee,’ go ahead and play it on loop after you’ve finished watching the film).
Daniel Hart’s original score is again likely to rank amongst the best of the year. Fans of Lowery’s under-appreciated 2017 masterpiece A Ghost Story may recall that Hart orchestrated a similarly iridescent accompaniment at that time, but he outperforms himself here. It is a score which weaves in and out of the fabric of the film like its own character. Groaning violins herald the arrival of storms, moody harps are plucked to forewarn a natural dissonance, and elegiac rhymes bookend the introduction and departure of characters. Percussive strings and booming horns which accompanied the green Gawain (no pun intended) are switched out with a wonderfully deep lute when the world-wise Arthur begins to speak. It is the kind of original film score rarely made these days. Hart is instrumental in embedding within the film a feeling of the otherworldly clashing against the inflexible steels of the kingdom of man, which has claimed the world as its own haunt.
Returning to the film, Arthur rises from his throne and asks one of the assembled heroes for a knightly parable that might amuse his court. Elsewhere in the castle, Gawain’s mother meets with a coven of what we assume are witches (it’s an Arthurian legend, after all, and although no spoilers will be discussed here, fans of the stories know who King Arthur’s sister is) and performs an unknown ritual. Why? The answer is not particularly important in the heat of the moment, but certainly consider the idea once the credits have completed their upwards trek, as there are a number of interesting possibilities which will influence the way you view multiple characters. Immediately as the women conclude the enchantment, the massive doors to Arthur’s court burst open and a hulking horse canters in, carrying on its back a most peculiar knight. In a remarkable blend of CGI and makeup, the knight is an earthen beast, perhaps best characterized as an armored Groot (the adult version). In one hand he carries a bough of holly and in the other, a massive axe long at least as any of the assembled men. Voiced by Ralph Ineson, the Green Knight is imbued with great majesty in equal terms as great mystery. With the king’s permission, he fearlessly extends the court an offer for a Christmas game. If any of the knights of the Round Table are brave enough, they may challenge him in a duel. The challenger who can successfully land a blow on him may win his axe, but in return, the man must travel to the Green Chapel in exactly one year and receive an equivalent wound in exchange.
The heroes hesitate. It might be suspected that they are all experienced enough to not enter into such a deadly covenant issued by a clearly dangerous spirit. Gawain, however, sees the opportunity before him and seizes it. Starving for a chance at recognition, he boldly accepts the challenge, and leaps over the feast-laden table to challenge the Knight. When he calls out for a sword and no one responds, Arthur hands him his own silver blade, and reminds his overeager nephew that this is just a game. One might hope for some moment of Christmas spirit and camaraderie between the young prince and the Green Knight, but alas, only the Knight is in a festive mood. He simply lays down his axe and bares his neck. Again, in the face of such an obvious provocation, a more cautious knight might have favored a slow approach. After all, a nick on the shin or a shave off the neck would constitute a bodily blow. Gawain, unknowing in his youth and unthinking in his fear, chooses instead to behead his foe with a single stroke. Turning to look at his uncle, he sees a look of deep regret on his uncle’s countenance, but has no time to contemplate on it. The Knight, quite unfazed, collects its head in its arms and reminds Gawain to honor their agreement before mounting himself and riding off. Only the monstrous axe remains behind him. Gawain’s fear fades away as his comrades applaud him, and he regains his composure. Later on, he even brags to his lover, Esel (Alicia Vikander in a quietly luminous role), that he held Excalibur in his hands and fearlessly slew the beast. A year passes in a drunken haze and Gawain has no intention of riding out to receive any beheadings, not until Arthur meets with him and gently recommends that he make the journey that he had promised.
We now enter the main events of the film. This review will not cover any of that epic journey, as it is quite the adventure to behold. One one hand, it serves as an incredibly intimate coming-of-age tale for the naive Gawain as he seeks out honor and glory, but instead must come to an understanding of the basic tenets of knighthood. These are the five chivalric virtues: generosity, piety, courtesy, chastity, and friendship. In the source material, Gawain is the ultimate knight inhabiting all these ideals, but suffice to say that this film does not adhere so closely to the myth. What stands The Green Knight out from the rest of its fantasy-adventure genre brethren is its cinematic approach to storytelling. Nothing in this film is given in the form of spoken word. Everything must be derived by the audience themselves as they experience the myth with Gawain. His trials and tribulations are carefully chosen by Lowery to maximize the effects of Gawain’s character arc. Well-known faces weave in and out of our perception - Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton, and Erin Kellyman are among the number of characters whom Gawain must encounter on his wintry journey through the cliffs of Ireland.
Gawain confronts not only those foes on his travels, but inner demons from within himself. Constantly conflicted and betrayed by his own base desires, it is even suggested at separate intervals that he recognizes these weaknesses. After a tryst with a woman ends with her telling him “you are no knight,” he quickly flees to avoid confronting such a naked truth. He is a deeply flawed, deeply human character with a fervent desire to find honor but little incentive to genuinely better himself. Another event during his journey has a young woman asking him for a favor, which he responds to be questioning what he might receive in return. She pauses for just a second and voices what we are all wondering: “Why would you ask that?” Indeed, his biggest challenge may be his own ineptitude. We are confronted with a significant question. Do we even want him to return from this journey? By the rules of the game, he should receive the same decapitating blow he so ungenerously delivered to the Knight, and in the final moments of his life he may gain some of the honor he was searching for. On the other hand, we also desire to see Gawain truly evolve as a character and somehow work out an alternative conclusion to his tale, one which might allow his head to remain on his shoulders so that he may continue onto his path as a better man.
A lot of our goodwill for the morally-questionable protagonist is due to the efforts of Dev Patel, in an outstanding performance that confirms his invaluable contribution in these sorts of independent productions. An Oscar-nominated turn in 2016’s Lion followed by a charismatic lead role in 2020’s The Personal History of David Copperfield heralded him as a leading voice in bold creative yarns told by skilled filmmakers operating outside the oft-stifling creative atmospheres of major studios, but The Green Knight catapults him to the top of the heap in a similar way to stars of the recent past such as Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) and Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out). Patel plays Gawain with a deeply unsure soul. He swaggers in front of Esel and his mother, humbly genuflects to his king, and capitulates to fear whenever he encounters the unknown. His eyes constantly sweep around him, looking desperately for easy solutions. Whenever trouble strikes, it feels like he is just a moment from turning tail and fleeing back to his castle, hiding his shame within drink and women.
However, it is impossible to ignore the real MVP of the film, David Lowery himself. With his most operatic and ambitious film outtake yet, he brings us deep into a world of fantasy and danger, sweeping across the beautiful natural vistas of Ireland. There are shots in the film which betray words, and yet seem natural and inventive in the hands of Lowery. He is greatly aided in this venture by his cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palermo, who infuses significant moments in the film with carefully curated lighting choices. For example, take a single idea from the film: the re-emergence of the natural world to oppose mankind’s irreverence for the beauty which surrounds it. The streets of Arthur’s city are unkempt and washed out, nary a blade of grass to be seen in a veritable stone ocean. It is a land of unyielding gray. Compare this to the ethereal majesty in which the Green Knight holds court; to compare the two is an effrontery tantamount to likening the earth as to the heavens. Palermo frequently uses natural light, but is unafraid to utilize more recent technological achievements in digital wizardry to lend each sequence the lensing it requires.
Lowery is content to draw us into a natural rhythm, ignoring the opportunity for cheap gimmicks, choosing to reveal the camera to the audience only when it achieves an effect which lingers in the depths of our consciousness. One particularly astonishing shot sees the camera patiently pan 360˚ clockwise to allow us a glimpse of a potential future for Gawain in a dire moment, and then swivel back around counterclockwise to see that Gawain himself has realized this fate and is now in the throes of a great struggle to avoid it. This incredible shot invisibly accomplishes a great deal. Not only are we given a chance to explore Gawain’s inner mindset in an intuitive and inherently cinematic fashion, but it also allows Lowery and Palermo an opportunity to break spatial bounds and exit the grounded world into something more closely approximating the tone of the great Arthurian legends. It is a prophylactic idea which occurs relatively early on and guides us onto a more fantastical environment, open to a number of more unusual possibilities which disconnect us from what we know of ‘Sir Gawain and The Green Knight,’ and drops us squarely into the territory that Lowery and his collaborators have so carefully crafted. After all, the film takes a number of creative liberties - as all great adaptations do - from the aged text, all of which are necessary to reasonably revitalize its worthy themes for a new medium.
It is impossible to discuss this film without at least mentioning the ending. Without going into any details at all, it suffices to say it utilizes an astonishing narrative trick. It is not such a groundbreaking visual stratagem or curious abstract ruse, but the quality of material itself which must be approached with exquisite delicacy. Lowery proves to be a deft hand at this, seamlessly skating through time while maintaining the same narrative tone. It is one of the more memorable cinematic conclusions of the 21st century thus far. One may go so far as to say it equals the infamous endings of Inception or Whiplash, which simply tether their hooks into you and refuse to let you go even long after the credits have rolled. Lowery has earned a chair amongst the top titans of today, alongside technical wizards like Nolan and Chazelle, and one can only hope that this film earns him the plaudits those directors previously earned and of which he most certainly deserves to partake in.
The Green Knight interacts with the audience on a nearly spiritual scale. It is cinema which draws your mind to ruminate on an endless number of questions. Lowery crafts a timeless masterpiece that forces us to look inwards, refusing to give us any easy outs. Multiple interpretations of the film have already spread online, all insistent in their own veracity; yet, they are all correct and are all wrong. To reduce this film down to a single, factual plot thread does a great disservice to its creators, who labored intensely to ensure its numerous coils can be untangled in a number of different ways. The film inspires fervent discussion just as mythology passed down in written form and spoken word has done for past generations. After a dark year for cinema lovers, this is exactly the soul-stirring drama that the theatrical business needs to revive itself. The blockbuster appeals of F9 and Black Widow and Jungle Cruise will always live on. They were never under threat, though. It is an indie gem like The Green Knight which illustrates why film must survive on as an essential art form. The only relevance which we can extract from the infinite expanses of the natural universe that surrounds is that which we must seek for ourselves. Just as Sir Gawain must discover this along his arduous journey, so too must cinema survive as a reminder of that essential truth.
Score: ★★★★★ / ★★★★★