Masculinity is a myth, and I mean that both literally and figuratively, and I think David Lowery does, too, if his phenomenal, unshakeable The Green Knight is any indication. We look to “all great myths of old” to understand how our belief systems have been shaped, how we give priority to certain qualities over others, and how we decide who gets to be a hero. We exalt the men we think are the best of us, and we romanticize their acts. We grow ourselves in their shadows; we are the moss and the mushrooms and the new life thriving upon their death, and upon their legacy. We aspire to greatness, sometimes more often than we hold ourselves to standards of goodness, and we live only briefly on this Earth—a flicker, really, in our collective history—before we, too, feed those who come after us.
“Look, Roxana,” you’re probably thinking, exasperatedly, “I heard Dev Patel is very sweaty and naked in this movie. Is that true?” And yes, sure, I could confirm for you that Dev does in fact get somewhat sweaty, and also yes, sports some chest hair that I found very welcome indeed. But come on! Dev was hot in The Wedding Guest, too, and I’m trying to say something about time and fathers and life’s purpose here. And what I’m trying to say is that The Green Knight furthers Lowery’s interest in the inexplicably tragic, irreversibly linear march of time, but instead of a Western spin (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) or an arthouse spin (A Ghost Story) or a crime spin (The Old Man and the Gun) or a best-live-action-Disney-movie spin (Pete’s Dragon), this time the filmmaker is tackling a hallowed Western text and all the iconic baggage that comes with it.
The resulting film is painstakingly crafted by Lowery and a murderer’s row of longtime collaborators: cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, of A Ghost Story; composer Daniel Hart, who has worked on every single one of Lowery’s films; production designer Jade Healy, who helped build the intricate world of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood; and costume designer Malgosia Turzanska, who pulls from the colors of the original story—gold, red, and green—to tell a story through hue and shade. I read the 14th century source story Sir Gawain and the Green Knight many, many years ago, and so I cannot tell you every single minute detail of how the story and the movie line up. But what I can tell you is that Lowery has injected a welcome duality here: wryness and melancholy, regret and celebration, fear and pride. And at its center is a performance from Patel that walks the knife’s edge between folly and vigor, between wisdom and lamentation, and between predetermination and doubt.
Patel’s face is a wide-open canvas upon which all these emotions duel, transform, and truce, and his physicality here—lithe and confident in one moment, ashamed and desperate in another—helps us understand the sense that his Gawain is a man, yes, but not yet one who has done any “manly” things past the obvious ones. He drinks at pubs where everyone recognizes him, night after night. He fucks at brothels where all the women recognize him, night after night. He has not yet seen battle, and he may never will, if his uncle (unnamed here, but theoretically King Arthur, played by the endless gift to our ears that is Sean Harris) can hold the kingdom together. He irritates his mother, the king’s sister (Sarita Choudhury, in Morgaine from The Mists of Avalon mode), with all his gallivanting and freeloading. When pressed for any kind of responsibility, he balks. “You a knight yet? Better hurry up!” one of the brothel workers snarks. His lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) proposes marriage, and he has literally no response for her. And at the king’s Round Table during a Christmas celebration, Gawain cannot answer his uncle’s request to “Tell me a tale of yourself, so that I may know thee.” “I have none to tell,” he says, a little chastised and a little sorry for himself, but his aunt the queen (Kate Dickie) will not allow such self-indulgent misery. “You have none to tell yet,” she insists, and then we’re off.
The Green Knight is divided into an array of chapters, and “The Christmas Game” sets them all in motion. A knight who is essentially a shrunken Treebeard (Ralph Ineson) strides into the king’s castle, and issues a challenge: Whichever knight can strike him shall win his axe, but in one year’s time, he’ll need to visit the Green Knight at the Green Chapel and have the blow repaid. Gawain, desperate to prove himself, takes the bet—beheading the Green Knight and then realizing, to his horror and fear, that the Green Knight cannot die. A year later he’ll need to visit the Green Chapel and honor his vow, and in the blink of an eye, the time has passed. So the sheltered Gawain sets off, leaving behind the ailing king, the worried Essel, and his encouraging mother, and traipsing into lands where he has never been.
A forest of solitary pine trees, verdant and evergreen, and against their trunks slumped decaying soldiers’ bodies. A muddy field in which a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) loots the bodies of the dead, while musing to himself, “I do have two brothers out here somewhere.” A woman waiting in a cabin to meet Gawain, and a lord and lady waiting in a castle to meet Gawain. All manner of magical creatures, and all manner of inexplicable things, and “all manner of mysteries,” as Gawain discusses—and as Lowery forms into images of unsettling, eerie, and gorgeous grandiosity.
Lowery and Palermo are fond of long, interrupted shots here, whether that means a slow walk up to a castle face, its strict vertical symmetry interrupted by the lens flares caused by sunlight streaming through a perfectly circular window, or the beautiful flow of Gawain riding away from the castle and toward the camera, guiding his horse forward and forward until he’s in line with the camera, and then gliding past. There is an entrancing sense of movement throughout these desolate places, whether it’s the intentionality of a giant’s gait or the scamper of a talking fox. And then there are the moments that defy explanation, but fall in line with the film’s sense of mythical grandeur.
Gawain astride a throne, crown on head and scepter in hand, before bursting into flame. The golden glow from the king’s sword illuminating Gawain’s face, moments before the green glow of the Green Knight’s challenge emblazons the queen’s. A slow, 360-degree pan of a forest floor that plays with our sense of place and distorts our sense of time. A hand that decays into dust; a tree trunk that stretches into a human form. What is real? Does it matter? Imagined things, our fantasies and our dreams, hold their own weight and wield their own power. “I’m not ready yet. I’m not ready,” Gawain says when faced with what could be his destiny. Is anyone? The Green Knight is quixotic and lyrical, strange and sardonic, and a bewitching exploration of the challenges life hands us, the ones we go searching for, and the selfhood we grow away from or into along the way.
The Green Knight is now available for digital rental.
Image sources (in order of posting): A24, A24