The Green Knight is a mesmerizing and creative rendition of an ancient Arthurian legend which plays homage to classic historical and fantasy films.
To the casual movie-watcher, films where characters lug around big swords are supposed to be action movies. It’s been ingrained into our minds by past big-budget spectacles and the advertising firms hired to motivate butts into theater seats. So, it was no surprise that upon walking out of the theater after watching The Green Knight that there were voices of displeasure about the film NOT being an action movie. I’ll say it as plainly as I can to be sure you understand completely: The Green Knight is not an action movie.
Sure, the advertising probably misleads you. Studios haven’t figured out how to sell historic films to general audiences without hinting at exciting action. But again, this is an A24 film, so if you don’t know what that means you probably weren’t going to like it anyway. The Green Knight is more of a study of a character’s inward conflict than it is about any outward conflicts. This is more than just a modern interpretation of a historic folktale, it is brought to life with an almost dream-like surrealism in order to capture the intent of the original work.
Directed By: David Lowery
Written By: David Lowery
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, Joel Edgerton, Barry Koeghan
Release Date: July 30, 2021
That step away from reality, including the risky creative decisions required to do so, may be the film’s most controversial element (beyond mainstream audience’s lust for more violence). I would not hesitate to call The Green Knight self-indulgent, but the way it approaches the source material is also what makes it so interesting and unique. The story unfolds more like a poem than a traditional film narrative. It utilizes allegory to convey its message, and in doing so is closer to the intent of the original story upon which the film is based rather than “just” a modern interpretation of it.
The film follows a young man named Gawain and his quest to become a knight. His uncle is the King, who asks Gawain to tell a story about himself. Gawain is unable to do so. At a Christmas feast, a Green Knight interrupts the festivities with a proposal. He agrees to give his axe to any man who can injure him, but in one year’s time the Green Knight will return the favor. Emboldened to make a name for himself, Gawain agrees. He becomes frustrated when the Green Knight doesn’t fight back, and cuts off his head. The Green Knight picks up his head and leaves, reminding Gawain of their deal.
At first Gawain is hailed as a hero, and feels a sense of accomplishment. But slowly over time the reality of the task ahead of him takes its toll. Reluctantly he leaves the castle one year later to seek out the Green Knight and receive a reciprocal blow. The majority of the film focuses on this journey and the various trials Gawain faces on the way. Each of these moments is meant to test his commitment to becoming a Knight.
The film is full of magical realism, and the further it goes along the further it diverts from reality. In addition to shots of the main character wandering around in the woods, this growing disconnect from the real world is what gives the film its sense of movement. Interestingly, the film doesn’t approach the quest with any sense of urgency. The unease comes not just from the way the film depicts its strange world, but also our impatience as a viewer. We want to find something that we can grab onto and feel in our hands for context, yet the film never provides it.
This approach makes The Green Knight a more difficult watch. But the impatience we have while watching it is the same experience as felt by the main character. He wants to become a Knight so bad that he is willing to take shortcuts to make it happen. As the audience may not recognize a moment of importance until it has already passed, Gawain doesn’t realize the challenges he faces until too late. In one particularly poignant scene, a woman asks him for assistance. Gawain asks her what she will do for him in return, and she chides him for his lack of chivalry.
But while the film does meander with a hidden purpose, at least the experience is pleasing in regards to the films’ visual and audio output. The production design is dark and gritty. It has this interesting aesthetic that feels like a classic 80’s film, but made with modern technology. In fact, the whole thing feels like an immense music video, with luxurious lighting, use of shadows, mist/smoke, and rumbling ambient noise. The camera is placed in front of characters’ faces which makes it feel smaller, and more compact despite the vast distances it travels.
Dev Patel stars as Gawain, and although it may seem like a strange casting choice at first, he is more than up to the task. In fact, since this role is outside of the typical roles we see him cast in, he really gets to show his range and how much he has matured. Alicia Vikander portrays a couple of different characters in the film, first as Essel, his lover and later as a lady in a vision. Vikander’s performance is really the crux of the film because she represents both the temptation that Gawain must learn to overcome but also the love inside him which motivates him to be a good person.
This duality of roles is discussed at different times throughout the film. Sean Harris, for example, portrays the famous King Arthur. But this isn’t the King Arthur we are familiar with from tales of yore. This is an older king in his waning years. His strength doesn’t come from his physicality as it may have in more traditional stories of the famed character, but from the respect he has earned from the men at his round table. This is the respect which ultimately motivates Gawain on his quest. He wants to become somebody, and comes to realize doing so is more about an inward journey than an outward one.
Still, I have to at least acknowledge the legitimacy of the complaint about the film’s pacing. Without action, the film relies heavily on its visuals and the important performances of its actors. While the film is very good in both regards, it doesn’t have enough of a compelling story to drive things forward with a sense of momentum. Instead, the film feels like it gets hung up at times. Meanwhile the metaphorical storytelling is somewhat one-dimensional. It’s a case of a film doing what it set out to accomplish (bring to life the classic story), but the end result not being quite as entertaining as it could have been with a bit more embellishment.
This means I have to regard The Green Knight as a step away from greatness. The film is very creative, very well executed, and does a great job of representing its source material. On the technical side it has everything you could want in a film where the filmmakers clearly loved what they were doing. The production design, acting, costumes, sets, and general aesthetic of the film make a strong impression. But it also requires something of its audience in order for them to make it all the way through. Great films shouldn’t have to rely on the audience’s leniency to grant them an insightful resolution. Great films keep our eyes glued to the screen because they give us good reasons to not stop watching. I didn’t have that feeling with The Green Knight.