Usually, I delight at the opportunity to write about a new movie in a simple new-release-review format, preferably at one of the outlets that care to indulge me in that regard, but sometimes on this website, where I don’t have to pitch my pre-constructed take on a particular film or filmmaker keyed to the zeitgeist, or a more specific demographic than “people who want to read a review of a new movie that they might watch at some point.” Those kinds of essays can be fun to write and turn out wonderfully; sometimes they are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Faced with the opportunity to write what I wanted about The Green Knight, however, I longed for the sense of purpose one can assign the fitting of a square peg into a round hole. For whatever reason, thinking about what to say about The Green Knight has felt like throwing a series of square pegs into the Grand Canyon.
This is not to say that The Green Knight is a film of vast, inimitable, impossible beauty (though it is beautiful). This is also not to say that I at all disliked David Lowery’s take on an Arthurian legend (maybe call it an Arthurish B-side?). For the most part, I liked it quite a lot; am I allowed to just come out and say that in a movie review? There are some parts in the first half-hour where too many characters have too many hushed conversations inside too many dim castles, and I briefly grew drowsy. But even this was weirdly effective, as so much of the rest of the movie plays like an actual dream, during which I was quite lucid, and delighted by the movie’s visual boldness and glorious unpredictability. (Perhaps now is a good time to admit that I was not familiar with this particular oft-told tale.)
Yet I still hoped against hope for an excuse to force The Green Knight into tighter confines: Maybe a piece about how after A24 turned the mostly bullshit idea of “elevated horror” into a recognizable aesthetic, perhaps it was fantasy’s turn for a phony sense of importance that the filmmakers themselves probably didn’t ask for, and even most critics wouldn’t cop to describing as such. Maybe something tied to the recent thirtieth anniversary of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and how this movie reclaims that blurry line between historical drama and fantastical hallucination, or something. I was dying for an editor to more or less tell me what to write: here’s the angle our readers will care about.
But no assignment materialized, and truth be told, I didn’t pitch as hard as I probably could, in part a result of my own ambivalence—which only worsened upon reading some smart, well-considered reviews by other critics. Part of it, I suppose—part of my ambivalence and part of what I found captivating about Lowery’s film—is that I felt genuinely unsure of what to make of it. The general story is so simple that I almost fell into confusion: Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), who serves an older King Arthur (Sean Harris), accepts a challenge from a mysterious visitor, a Green Knight who looks like a more solemn descendant of Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy. The Green Knight seeks an opponent who will take a single blow to him with an axe, under the condition that the Knight can return a single blow one year later. Sir Gawain, seemingly eager to prove his mettle, agrees, and chops the Green Knight’s head clean off. This makes not a lick of difference in Sir Gawain’s future obligations; the severed head, picked up by the Green Knight’s body, informs him that he will see him in a year’s time. The movie jumps forward a year, and accompanies Sir Gawain on his quest to let a tree-man take a swing at him.
There might be some kind of environmental fable in here; certainly Sir Gawain’s travels are informed more by the environments he finds himself in than traditional characters. Thieves, ghosts, foxes, and giants that might be hallucinations cross Lowery’s canvas like brushstrokes. When Sir Gawain does have sustained contact with actual human beings—a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Alicia Vikander), the latter closely resembling the woman he left behind (Vikander plays her too)—it’s as dreamlike and inscrutable as any of his other vignettes. (Maybe moreso; the ghost he meets feels a bit more upfront about her wants and needs.)
The fleeting nature of the characters—Patel does a lot of reacting; Vikander may not reveal much by design—and the dominance of the landscapes, with their ample mists, damp greens, and hallucinatory blasts of other colors, combined with that whispery, past-prime Arthur, makes The Green Knight feel desolate and elegiac. Despite the obviously ample resources that went into it, it’s a movie that often seems alone with its thoughts. But if it is an elegy, it’s one with a deep uncertainty over what comes next. Gawain seems to be pursuing a notion of honor and chivalry that’s as elusive as it is theoretical. Lowery, too, appears hypnotized by the landscape’s mysteries. A Ghost Story went further on a metaphysical trip, but started from a recognizable place of grief, and looped back around to meet it again. His follow-up, The Old Man and the Gun, takes pleasure in local legend and an itinerant outlaw lifestyle, but through the accessibility and human charms of its star, Robert Redford. Lowery may have gained notice by aping Malick with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, but he’s never seemed especially obtuse. The guy has a sideline in Disney remakes, for Christ’s sake.
At times, The Green Knight resembles the ornate designs of one of those Disney live-action joints left to grow and tangle without interference from a mega-budget franchise. Lowery has also cited director David Gordon Green’s George Washington as an influence, which makes it difficult for me, as a fan of Green’s eclecticism, not to compare The Green Knight to Your Highness, of all things, that most immediately reviled of Green projects. (Far fewer people even bothered to see The Sitter.) Green clearly made that movie because he just plain likes medieval fantasy shit, and thought it would be fun to stick Danny McBride into the middle of one. I wonder if The Green Knight reflects a similar whim, minus the foulmouthed comedy. There are more serious currents rushing through Lowery’s film, about the corners of the world that are unknown to us, and the attempt to impose a system upon a natural (or, for that matter, man-made) system that ultimately rejects it, but it’s also a gnarly fucking dorm-poster movie full of weird creatures, color-blocked psych-outs, and horny Alicia Vikanders. The movie’s final sequence makes an unexpected expansion, suddenly producing the kind of linear, scannable results that the earlier challenges and riddles do not, as if offering the trappings of a medieval epic at the last minute. Is this what you want, the movie seems to ask. I had to admit, by the end, that I wasn’t sure.