Lately in my reviews, I feel like I’ve been starting with pointing out my ignorance — and I don’t mind doing so; let’s normalize admitting our ignorance because it’s abundant! — but well, I can’t lie. When I first saw the trailer for David Lowery’s 2021 film, The Green Knight, I thought it was some sort of Game of Thrones spinoff movie until the title was revealed. That’s because I don’t have all that much knowledge of King Arthur and wasn’t previously familiar with the medieval poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
Nonetheless, the film was getting good reviews and I don’t mind a little fantasy, so I went and saw it Thursday night. Well then. I felt like I stepped into a dream and was flung from the dream thereafter. There was some jolt-inducing personal news I received quite literally minutes before the film started and the dream-like aspect of the film helped to quickly put that on the distant backburner, thankfully.
The gist of the story is that the Green Knight, who looks like an ancient tree on two towering legs, barges in on King Arthur’s roundtable (a metaphor perhaps for how nature barges in on human civilization all of the time to remind us how thing the barrier is) and challenges anyone present to play his Christmas game: If you can land a blow upon me, then one year hence, I shall land the blow in kind upon you. But like, he said it much cooler and in that gravelly tree voice.
Nobody seems quite eager to step up, aside from the King, who at that point is near-feeble, saying if not for his body’s inability, he’d like to. That’s when the King’s nephew, Sir Gawain (played by Dev Patel) steps up and takes on the challenge. The King even gives Gawain his sword to use.
Interestingly, the Green Knight doesn’t make a battle of it. Instead, he bows his head and kneels for Gawain. Gawain isn’t sure what to make of that at first, but elects to behead the Green Knight, whereupon, the Green Knight casually picks up his head and walks off, reminding Gawain of the terms of the game.
Now, if this was me and I was in this situation, knowing that there will be a reciprocation, wouldn’t you gently nick the Green Knight’s skin? Therefore, you’d only get a gentle nick in return? I’d be great at this game! Come on!
Unfortunately for Gawain, we’re talking about knightly matters and in that time, honor and having a “legendary tale” to tell, were everything. Therefore, beheading is the choice. A nicking wouldn’t be legendary. Heck, right before the Green Knight barged in, King Arthur was asking Gawain if he had a tale to tell.
Arrogant ambition is the folly of man, especially up against the metaphor of nature, aka the Green Knight. Nature is the casino: the house always wins.
Nonetheless, once a year has passed, Gawain takes his journey to the green chapel to receive his reciprocation from the Green Knight. Along the way, a lot of fantastical things happen, such as meeting a dead woman, also without a head, for which Gawain fishes out of the sea for her (it’s the chivalrous thing to do, you know? It’s knightly business); coming upon giant naked women of some sort; and a talking fox who has followed him around. Then there’s a bizarre series of scenes where right before Gawain meets the Green Knight again, he bunks with a Lord and the Lord’s Lady. The Lady and Gawain have some sort of weird sexual interaction, and then later, the Lord kisses Gawain. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Or any of it. Perhaps a continuing theme that Gawain isn’t as honorable or legendary as his hype suggests?
Oh, and there’s also the matter of a gang of criminals getting the jump on him, stealing his horse, the Green Knight’s ax, and Gawain’s special green cloth he wraps around his waist. Gawain’s mother tells him that cloth will prevent his death. You can’t lose that! Later, he retrieves it and even keeps it on during sex.
The landscape shots from Lowery and Andrew Droz Palermo, the cinematographer, are fantastical, dream-like and gorgeous to behold. It really feels like you’re knee-deep in a layered poem (speaking of which, I thought about reading the poem before or after seeing the film and well, I didn’t realize it was 101 lines; maybe another time). Add in the lovely at times, and heart-pounding at other times, soundtrack by Daniel Hart, and the entire production of this film hits all of my spots.
I will admit to feeling lost at some of the fantastical plot moments and some of the dialogue is hard to hear and understand, particularly in that Middle English accent, but in that way, the film exists as an “experience” more than anything.
One film critic I like a great deal, Peter Suderman, put it better and more succinct than I can, “THE GREEN KNIGHT is a bonkers ass weird-art trip movie for the ages. Its about swords, weird monsters, f*cking, fate, the emptiness of existence, and the inevitability of death. It’s also a surprisingly excellent Christmas movie.”
Yup, it is all of those things. At the end of the film, while waiting to seemingly be beheaded, Gawain sees a flash of his life after evading the Green Knight, where he gets married, has children and becomes the king. But, as Suderman points out, it’s an empty existence and death is still inevitable. Even in the imagining of a different outcome, Gawain takes off that green cloth around his waist, which lobs his head off, killing him. Being king, the highest station at the time, matters not up against the inevitability of death.
Myths, legends, knightly honor; all of these things are the veneer humans created. An artifice to distract from the brutish reality of nature and how, as creatures born of nature, we shall return to nature. Merry Christmas!
But yeah, even as someone who loves off-the-beaten-path films, arthouse films and a lot of what the production company A24 does, this one was admittedly hard to follow, but I still enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to anyone. It was one of those films that because it is so well-executed, I had that rare feeling I get watching certain films where 10 minutes in, you know you’re watching something special. Even if I don’t know exactly what, I knew it was special, if that makes sense.
Believe it or not, this was my first Lowery film, but it certainly will not be my last. I’m excited to dive into his other works.