Rich with atmosphere and metaphor, propelled by a soundtrack of hollow strums and whispering strings, David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a kind of artisanal fantasy epic, whittling Arthurian legend into the rough shape of one of distributor A24’s arty horror mood pieces. Over two-plus hours, the film never stops dazzling the viewer with mythic imagery. During one interlude, which may be real or a vision brought on by mushrooms (the whole movie has the vibe of a psychotropic trip), pale, naked giants of almost extraterrestrial wonder lumber across the landscape. They’re amazing, in their scale and otherworldliness. Yet so is just about everything captured by Andrew Droz Palermo’s camera, affording the natural world of this medieval setting the same storybook awe framing its supernatural intrusions.
Among the film’s most remarkable attractions is its title one, who arrives like a weed bursting from cracked tile, bringing a primordial Earth-god power through the gates of Camelot. Lowery first exercises his creative liberty in the transformation of this villain of classic literature into a menace of vegetative viridescence, with a face as rough as bark and an axe that sprouts flowers when laid in the dirt. He looks fearsome, and sounds even scarier, limbs creaking and groaning with every movement, as though they were the branches of an ancient oak swayed by high winds. Brought to life with help from Peter Jackson’s Weta effects house, the Knight is a creature of uncommon tactility; you feel like you could reach out and run a hand across his corklike skin. Even the film’s digital wizardry has a handmade quality.
On paper, the Knight was green only in hue. That’s how the author, unknown to this day, described the towering challenger of his Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, and how everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to Simon Arbitage have described him too, when translating the 14th-century poem from Middle English into modern verse. What did he represent? Whole college curriculums have been filled with theories on the matter. A staple of academic study, Sir Gawain And The Green Knight has inspired endless interpretations and thematic readings over the ages. It’s also spawned stage productions, operas, and two prior cinematic adaptations (both written and directed by Stephen Weeks, neither well remembered nor well regarded). Lowery seems drawn to the story mainly as a symbolic text. He revels in its mysteries and ambiguities and internal conflicts, like the collision of an older natural world (represented by the Knight) with the new one of the New Testament.
In shortening the title, Lowery lends it a dual meaning: The other “green” knight here is Gawain himself, played by reigning authority on plucky young strivers Dev Patel. Introduced waking in a whorehouse on Christmas morning, his Gawain is a shiftless teenage libertine caught between the implicitly pagan values of his mother (Sarita Choudhury, doing a revisionist take on the enchantress Morgan le Fay) and the explicitly Christian values of his uncle (Sean Harris, as the film’s aged, thoughtful King Arthur). It’s the young man’s insecurity about his own lack of accomplishments that inspires him to accept the challenge of the Green Knight, landing a blow that the hulking visitor will return in kind one year later. When Gawain ends up decapitating the knight, who gallops off with his own cackling noggin under one arm like the Headless Horseman, the gravity of the quid pro quo begins to sink in.
The following Christmas, Gawain nervously sets out on a journey to find his mysterious sparring partner and uphold his end of the bargain. Like its source material, The Green Knight has an episodic structure, but most of the episodes don’t resolve in simple or reductively instructive ways. An encounter with a deceptive thief (Barry Keoghan) on a body-strewn battlefield, for example, offers no “satisfying” closure, only the shame of defeat. Later, Gawain’s journey brings him to a castle and a hospitable host (Joel Edgerton)—one of the more significant chapters from the original text. The Green Knight complicates it, however, by casting Alicia Vikander in a dual role as both the stranger’s flirtatious wife and Gawain’s sweetheart back in Camelot. The addition of a romance in the modern sense of the word to this classic chivalric romance hints at the film’s priorities as a kind of coming-of-age story for a feckless scion. It also intrinsically ties his grasp for honor, the driving motive of the young man’s quest, to his relationship with the kind of character who rarely makes the final draft of stories bound for the libraries of history.
Legends have always been of paramount interest to Lowery, who mounted an extended tribute to a one-man Hollywood history in his last film, The Old Man And The Gun, and reached for eternity itself in his eccentric A Ghost Story. Here, the Texas writer-director revels in the opportunity to create image after image worthy of immortalization: The Green Knight is his most purely striking achievement, offering sprawling forests bathed in ghostly orange light and overhead shots that suggest the surveying eye of a curious god. Lowery shot much of the film in County Wicklow in Ireland, with scenes in a castle previously glimpsed in John Boorman’s take on Arthurian legend, Excalibur, and in another tale of a young man fumbling his way forward, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. Lowery, never shy about wearing influences on his sleeve, borrows a little from both, while nodding also to the controversial revisionism of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation Of Christ and to the allegorical dread (and talking fox!) of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.
This is, in the end, a spectacle of contradictions: as grandiose as the canon of tales to which it belongs but also oddly intimate in focus, with a modern psychology that clashes productively with its squalid evocation of the far bygone yesteryear. By the end, the film’s commitment to a sustained note of woozy, remote astonishment begins to wear a little thin; one could not be blamed for desiring an Arthurian adventure that didn’t unfold in such an unbroken state of art-movie portentousness. But though Lowery resists committing to any one popular take on this anonymously penned cornerstone of world literature, instead riffing on its key motifs (that green girdle) and the centuries of discussion they’ve provoked, he does ultimately locate a relatable subversion of legend in his depiction of Gawain as a young man wrestling mightily with the consequences and responsibilities of delayed manhood. The film opens, elegantly and significantly, with a house on fire in the distance, then pulls back in the same shot, through a doorway, to find Patel slumbering in close-up, asleep while the world literally burns. Watching him finally wake up is the payoff waiting at the end of The Green Knight’s long road.