Delayed due to the pandemic, The Green Knight is the latest mind-bending A24 summer movie, but does it live up to its own legend?
Gather round, ye of strong will and stronger wi-fi connections. It is time once again for a tale to be spun. A tale as old as time (not that one), yet ever as culturally relevant and exciting as ever. A story about a man in search of honor and the green-clad hand of fate that changed his life forever.
The Green Knight, directed by David Lowery (A Ghost Story) and starring Dev Patel (The Personal History of David Copperfield), takes a story that has done wonders for the page and translates it into a spectacle. It’s a glowing achievement of film and certainly worth the wait.
Of course, this isn’t really the story of The Green Knight. Rather, this is my critical opinion of the movie. Something I wouldn’t usually point out due to how obvious it is, but I do so only to encourage anyone and everyone reading this to see the movie first. If you’ve been waiting for a movie that truly bathes itself in mystery and metaphor from start to finish, I implore you to bookmark this tab and go view this movie as unaware as our Patel protagonist.
Well whether you heeded my warning or not, the show must go on. Thankfully, I couldn’t fully spoil The Green Knight even if I tried. The movie, in all its A24 meta-mystery goodness, has left me puzzled in the best way possible. It’s been a while since a movie made me question the entire foundations of the modern blockbuster. But don’t worry, this review isn’t going to be as allegorical as the film. I could never compete with the anonymous author of the original Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in that regard.
The story begins with our hero, Sir Gawain (Patel), enjoying his Christmas morning with his lady lover (Alicia Vikander), before making his way to King Arthur’s court. King Arthur, portrayed by Sean Harris (Mission Impossible: Fallout), conducts his yearly Christmas feast, wherein he and his knights of the round table take part in the holiday festivities. The party is cut short by the arrival of a mysterious Green Knight, who challenges any of the warriors present to a festive game. Strike him as hard as they can, with the condition that in exactly one year they would seek him out and receive the same blow they’ve dealt to him.
Gawain, hoping to prove to himself his honorability, accepts the knight’s challenge on King Arthur’s behalf. He strikes hard, chopping the Green Knight’s head clean off. Though it seems as if the game is over, the otherworldly figure rises up and grabs his head, reminding Sir Gawain of the second half of the game before riding off into the night. Thus begins the story of The Green Knight, an Arthurian legend with a history so ancient that no one alive knows who or where it originated from.
Though the original story is a lesson in honor and honesty, David Lowery’s version takes the tale to new heights.
The lesson is still there, untouched in its significance. But added is a brilliant deconstruction of both Arthurian fantasy and what makes a “blockbuster” a blockbuster.
If you had seen a trailer for The Green Knight, I wouldn’t blame you for expecting a little more action from the movie. The marketing touted it as a modern retelling of the classic medieval tale, full of Arthurian figures such as Arthur himself, Morgan Le Fey (Sarita Choudhury), and the wizard Merlin. But The Green Knight isn’t your typical Arthurian legend brought to screen.
In a cinematic climate that tends to lay heavy on the exposition, The Green Knight is a welcome change of pace. The film takes its time putting all the pieces together, or even presenting every piece of the puzzle for the audience to work out themselves. There’s a growing notion in media that blockbusters have to spell themselves out to their audience. Leave less time for set up and more time for the punchline.
The hero’s journey, reimagined.
At its core, The Green Knight is still a simple tale, but it tells its story not through your typical hero’s journey, but through the journey of a man still unsure if he even wants to be a hero. A story made deeply personal and downright tense thanks to an incredible performance by Patel, mixed with shockingly beautiful and terrifying, gothic visuals and lighting. I know this is A24 we’re talking about, but The Green Knight is aesthetically and thematically impressive even by the acclaimed studio’s standards.
The visuals of a Anglo-Saxon era Britain, laid in waste and stained by war, represent the beautifully macabre relationship between life and death present throughout Gawain’s journey. It will almost certainly remind viewers of Lowery’s previous essay on morality, A Ghost Story.
Not to mention, this movie makes Arthurian movies cool again. The mythos behind King Arthur, his wizard Merlin, and his knights of the round table has been told in just about every fashion and genre imaginable. Even when your favorite story isn’t explicitly set in medieval Anglo-Saxon times, there’s still a good chance Ol’ Arty inspired it.
This, of course, presents a problem.
When such a story is told time and time again, and there isn’t much change besides switching out Clive Owen for Charlie Hunnam, it can get kind of dull.
The Green Knight scoffs at this tradition, presenting an Arthurian tale told in such a way that it separates itself from the rest of the catalog. The character of Sir Gawain is a complete subversion of the typical “brave knight” stereotype we tend to get from these kinds of stories. He doesn’t win this battle with the might of his sword or a Dragon-Ex-Machina. In fact, whether he’s truly emerged victorious by the end is purely up to the viewer’s perspective.
He isn’t a cowardly protagonist, necessarily, but he is truly the first of his kind to offer a deeply human experience told through legend. I found myself questioning what I would do or say if I was in Gawain’s shoes. As he ventured on his journey, I was there every step of the way, thanks to David Lowery’s phenomenal directing and Patel’s vulnerability onscreen.
Visually and narratively, The Green Knight is a true cinematic force to be reckoned with.
It may be a tale that’s been recounted time and time again, but so much can be learned from this cinematic version. Not just lessons in life, but lessons in filmmaking as well. This is one that shouldn’t be missed and was certainly worth the journey.
The Green Knight plays in select theaters starting July 30. Watch the official trailer here.