Although the film is officially titled The Green Knight, the first title card we see reads, “Sir Gawain and…” At first glance, this seems to reinforce the centrality of the hero (Dev Patel), aspiring Knight of the Round Table and nephew to King Arthur (Sean Harris). Each of the subsequent title cards announcing his episodic adventures begins with an ellipsis, the better to continue the thought: “Sir Gawain and… The Christmas Game,” “Sir Gawain and… A Meeting with St. Winifred,” and so on. Then again, when we first meet him sleeping away Christmas morning – not just in the proverbial shadow of his legendary uncle, but in a brothel in the literal shadow of his uncle’s castle – Gawain is not really a knight, so the “Sir” seems a bit provisional, a bit mocking. And there is something ominous about that ellipsis, too. Sir Gawain and… what? And the Green Knight, of course, but if the poster is anything to go by, in the end, only The Green Knight may remain.
Adapted from a 14th century poem, a chivalric romance written by an unknown contemporary of Chaucer’s, David Lowery’s The Green Knight plays fast and loose with its source material throughout; bifurcating the original title (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight) is just the beginning. The basic premise, however, remains unchanged, and thus retains its bewildering simplicity. The hulking Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) rides up to the Round Table during Christmastide and proposes a friendly contest: one of Arthur’s knights may attempt to strike him, on the condition that he will return the very same blow next Christmas. Gawain volunteers and proceeds to lop off the Green Knight’s head; the Green Knight blithely picks up his severed noggin and rides away, leaving Gawain with an all too short year ahead of him.
What ensues is a truly bizarre odyssey situated in some heretofore-undiscovered middle ground between Ingmar Bergman and Jim Henson. Lowery smashes the lowbrow and the highbrow against each other with the relish of a child staging violent Hot Wheels collisions in a sandbox – in interviews, he has cited influences ranging from Tarkovsky’s three-hour black-and-white epic Andrei Rublev to Ron Howard’s Willow – but perhaps this should not be too surprising coming from the fellow whose cosmically bleak meditation on mortality, A Ghost Story, placed Casey Affleck under a white sheet with eyeholes. Here, he has taken a venerable staple of English Lit college courses and jazzed it up with artfully surreal imagery that could have been ripped from the cover of a heavy metal album. I feel a bit like I am going out on a limb recommending the film so highly – I spent the first half-hour or so fearing I was in for a showy, empty, self-indulgent slog along the lines of The Revenant – but it settles deeper and deeper into its own strange groove as it goes along, and Lowery sticks a nearly miraculous landing with final passages so dizzying, so dazzling, that I’ve scarcely been able to stop thinking about them since the credits rolled.
Like the directors of so many Marvel movies, Lowery – one of the best American filmmakers working today – got his start in independent cinema and then quickly made the jump to studio pictures. No one else has made the transition so gracefully, though: Pete’s Dragon, his first big tentpole, has fifteen times the budget of his Sundance darling Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, without any corresponding diminution in personality or heart. One can’t quite imagine Lowery’s fellow Texan Terrence Malick doing a Disney remake or a Robert Redford star vehicle, but he is somewhere in the same ballpark, whittling away at his films in the editing room until they are light on plot and heavy on poetry. More than most modern directors, Lowery is willing to play the long game. A shyly thoughtful presence in interviews, he seems content to make movies that seem like minor works until they unfold their depths to the attentive viewer on a second or third or fourth viewing. In this respect, The Green Knight is a change of pace, laden with portent and bombast, but by the end it turns out to be just as rich, intimate, and inscrutable as the rest.
All of Lowery’s films to date have been American tall tales – stories told with a certain childlike delicacy, as if he came up with them while sitting around a campfire or tucking his kids into bed. With The Green Knight, he jumps into a dramatically different milieu but molds the material to fit his interests, exhuming the text from its resting place on the scholarly shelf and imbuing it with foggy, earthy, uncanny qualities that befit a piece of ancient folklore. As played by Patel, this Gawain is a callow young man all too keenly aware that he is surrounded by living legends; his decapitation of the Green Knight is partly youthful hubris, partly overcompensation for his own relative mediocrity. Like the hero of many a Lowery film before him – see Casey Affleck in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or Robert Redford in The Old Man and the Gun – he is an overgrown adolescent forced reluctantly toward maturity. His game with death has simpler rules than chess, but as he bumbles toward his appointment with the Green Knight’s axe, the film begins to feel like a distant, perpetually stoned cousin of The Seventh Seal, and its hero begins to feel like a slacker inverse of Max Von Sydow’s soul-searching Antonius Block: not an old knight weary of being haunted by death, but a young knight who has never come face to face with it before and must decide whether or not he wants to. This Gawain does not yet know how his story will end – and neither do we, though we might think we do.
Lowery, like Bergman before him, uses his medieval setting as a backdrop for decidedly modern existentialism. The Green Knight ostensibly takes place in England in the Middle Ages, but it is really pure fantasy; it might as well be Dungeons & Dragons. If I have one disappointment with the film, it is its apparent disinterest in engaging seriously with the religious underpinnings of its source material. An uneasy cold war between Christianity and paganism runs through the background of the story, but never quite takes center stage as it does in, say, The Virgin Spring (Bergman’s adaptation of a medieval ballad, recalled here by an episode featuring St. Winifred – Gawain comes across his own virgin spring in his travels). Characters make references to Christ, Mary, and Mass, but there is no reference to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come, which seems like something that would be worth thinking about in the face of one’s own impending beheading. God never answered Bergman’s heroes when they cried out to Him, but Lowery’s hero never even asks.
The film keeps its focus squarely on Gawain as he journeys towards his fatal rendezvous with destiny, though trippy images and supporting players often threaten to steal the film out from under him. Outside the comparatively familiar confines of Camelot, a heady, surreal atmosphere prevails. There are hints of Kubrick – especially Barry Lyndon, another epic cinematic poem about the fear of being a poser – and of Yorgos Lanthimos; early on, Gawain encounters a bandit played by Barry Keoghan with the same goofy menace he brought to Killing of a Sacred Deer. Their run-in ends with Gawain on the ground; in the film’s first (but by no means last) chronology-bending flourish, Lowery spins his camera around, like Doctor Strange playing with a half-munched apple, and his hero decomposes and recomposes before our eyes. When Gawain reaches a castle near the end of his quest, I could swear the décor shifts forward a few centuries, as if he has unwittingly stumbled onto the set of The Favourite or entered the fourth act of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because of its subject matter, the film is bound to recall John Boorman’s Excalibur, but I was reminded of the director’s earlier Lee Marvin vehicle Point Blank, in which an apparently straightforward revenge story spins off into some temporally hazy liminal space between mortality and immortality. On paper, the plot of The Green Knight is linear; in practice, it’s full of perplexing curlicues.
As the film slides further and further into the register of a dream (or a trip – Gawain does partake of some suspicious mushrooms), it moves with discomfiting ease between eerie gloom and a kind of droll silliness. When the ghost of St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman) asks him to retrieve her severed head, Gawain politely demurs, “Your head is on your neck, my lady.” Perhaps the film’s most exquisitely funny performance comes courtesy of a wild-eyed Joel Edgerton, whose unnamed, unhinged lord wears a bear’s head for a hat and seems oddly intent on setting Gawain up with his wife (Alicia Vikander, who, in an enigmatic touch, also plays Gawain’s prostitute sweetheart back home).
Foremost among the film’s many mysteries, of course, is the Green Knight himself, who Gawain finally meets by traveling up an autumn-hued river, like Willard going to meet Colonel Kurtz. Like the nude giants Gawain sees wandering through a sea of fog, the Knight is a marvelously tactile, low-tech creation; one of the film’s very best special effects is Ineson’s bass voice, which seems to rumble out of the depths of the earth. Gawain is torn between a Christian father (figure) and a pagan mother (Sarita Choudhury); the Green Knight seems to be neither, or both. His appearance in King Arthur’s court at the beginning of the film is fraught with ostentatious menace, but when Gawain meets him in the Green Chapel at the film’s end, there is a curious absence of malice. Even as he readies his axe, the Knight is quiet, even tender, and we get the sense that, through their game, he is only trying to teach Gawain some kind of lesson.
Of course, it is difficult to say what that lesson might be. Like the Green Knight, like Vikander in her dual roles, nearly everything in the film seems equivocal, double-sided, and it is through this resolute commitment to ambiguity that The Green Knight manages to tap into the elemental ur-text quality of its source – to avoid feeling like a pastiche, despite its self-consciously anachronistic touches. It carries itself like an allegory, full of symbols, but declines to interpret itself. What does it mean? What is it all about? The film is so obstinately cagey on that front that it can feel like one big cinematic Rorschach test.
Here is a guess anyway, though. Gawain initially thinks the game is about mastery – he thinks it is a fight, a duel – but the Green Knight simply kneels and surrenders to him. Gawain spends the entire film learning to do the same. He learns that greatness must not be bought at the price of goodness, and that it is better to die with honor than to live without it. As Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy writes in The Christian Future or the Modern Mind Outrun, “Man as an animal organism lives forward from birth to death, but, as a soul who knows beforehand that he will die, he molds his life looking backward from its end.” Perhaps The Green Knight is simply the story of how Gawain becomes a man.