Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Following an appropriately surreal and dreamlike prologue, David Lowery’s The Green Knight opens on a surprisingly mundane note: an image of geese quarreling with a goat while a horse observes placidly in the background. Meanwhile, in a corner of the screen so remote that it’s initially borderline imperceptible, a distant building is gradually consumed by flames. Eventually, a man and a woman enter the frame; she mounts the stallion, he draws a sword, and they flee together, pursued by unseen assailants. The camera then pulls back to reveal our young protagonist, Sir Gawain, passed out in a drunken stupor, sleeping obliviously through the commotion. It’s a deliciously ironic contradiction, ignoring the obvious drama in favor of emphasizing something absurd and insignificant.
Such paradoxes permeate the film. It is an intimate epic of the highest caliber, delivering both gorgeous visuals and emotional resonance in equal measure. Lowery reimagines Gawain as a flawed character akin to Shakespeare’s interpretation of Prince Hal: he shirks his knightly duties, instead frequenting bars and brothels, masquerading as a fool in order to conceal his insecurities; deep down, he fears shame, failure, and anonymity (vividly illustrated in the movie’s most striking—albeit mildly pretentious—sequence, in which our fledgling adventurer, after being ambushed by bandits and tied to a tree, hallucinates that he has rotted away, his ambitions and legacy reduced to a pile of bones in the dirt). Gawain’s uncle, the legendary King Arthur, is similarly demystified. Age has vastly diminished the once mighty leader’s regal demeanor: he speaks in a barely audible rasp, struggles to lift his own enchanted blade, and complains of toothaches. He also makes no effort to obfuscate his ruthlessness: he is a war chief and a conqueror, casually and unapologetically admitting that he has sent countless subjects to an early demise. It’s a refreshingly honest portrayal of a medieval ruler, and the fact that he remains so likable within the context of his antiquated moral code is a testament to actor Sean Harris’ immense talent.
Of course, adapting a relatively brief narrative poem to feature length requires some embellishment. In particular, Lowery elaborates on our hero’s journey to the Green Chapel (a rather abbreviated trek in the original text), inventing a series of challenges that test his resolve, fortitude, and valor. I wouldn’t argue that any of these new episodes necessarily improve upon the source material, but they certainly clarify the story’s themes, adding depth, substance, and flavor to the central meditation on the ambiguous nature of chivalry and honor. And they’re nothing if not versatile: grounded, gritty scenes of Gawain traversing corpse-strewn battlefields are immediately followed by darkly comic encounters with obstinate ghosts. The tone shifts constantly, abruptly, and unpredictably—which only serves to make the experience more exciting.
Indeed, these stylistic quirks make it difficult to properly classify The Green Knight. It undoubtedly belongs to the fantasy genre, but it shares more DNA in common with The Last Temptation of Christ than it does with The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, or anything in between. It is something wholly unfamiliar and unconventional—a true original. It isn’t consistently great, but in an industry that has become increasingly complacent and creatively stagnant, at least it dares to swing for the fences.