REVIEW: The Green Knight [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 130 minutes
    Release Date: July 30th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: A24
    Director(s): David Lowery
    Writer(s): David Lowery

I’ve got time. I’ve got lots of time.

When you want something as desperately as Gawain (Dev Patel) wants to be a knight, you tend to cut corners without knowing it. Some, like him, might overcompensate a bit too. This is why he spends nights at the brothel with Essel (Alicia Vikander) or drinking at the pub. He lives his life as though he’s “someone” because in his mind it doesn’t appear he’s going to actually become that “someone” any time soon. And since his uncle (Sean Harris‘ King Arthur) and aunt (Kate Dickie‘s Queen Guinevere) didn’t necessarily keep him under wing while ruling their kingdom, he can’t necessarily expect his blood to be enough. If his initiative only matched his ambition, he might just earn it outright. But there’s still some growing up to do.

One of my favorite parts of David Lowery‘s adaptation of The Green Knight is how he lets it be known that Arthur wants nothing more than proof that his nephew understands there’s more to knighthood than the ability to tell a good story to people willing to stop everything to listen. It seems so small in the grand scheme of things and yet the king’s simple question, “Do you understand the challenge?” carries so much weight. It’s a challenge in itself wherein Arthur is slowing things down for the young Gawain to process what he heard before agreeing to the titular stranger’s (Ralph Ineson) terms. The formidable Green Knight didn’t initiate a duel no matter how much the room’s atmosphere turned. It’s a game. A test.

He burst through Camelot’s doors at Christmas daring any man to strike a blow. Whoever complies will earn his axe as long as a gentleman’s agreement can be sealed saying that he’d be allowed to return the favor with an identical blow one year later. If Gawain weren’t clouded by the anticipation and adrenaline that comes with knowing his heroes were watching, maybe he wouldn’t have dismissed Arthur’s warning so quickly. Perhaps he would have worked backwards from a blow he was willing to take rather than conniving for a potential competitive advantage that would allow him to escape unharmed. Instead he sees a prone opponent seemingly giving him his blow for free and mistakes exuberance for glory. Off comes the Green Knight’s head, but alive he remains.

What stuck out most from this scene? Arthur and Guinevere’s faces at the moment they realize their nephew’s choice. Gawain gave the knight exactly what he desired: an excuse to make this “game” real. Real in the sense that he will be waiting next Christmas in his green chapel like he said? Maybe. Real in the sense that Gawain isn’t afforded the luxury to assume? Definitely. Because while doing what he did in front of his heroes garnered praise and adulation as well as the first half of a saga for the history books, it also ensured that the same audience witnessed his pact. Reneging isn’t therefore an option. While some would say what Gawain did was already cowardice, everyone would agree if he avoided his bargain’s conclusion.

The quest is set with those who love him bestowing gifts. Arthur supplies words of encouragement. Essel gives one of her bells to keep close to his heart. And his mother (Sarita Choudhury‘s Morgan le Fay) wraps an enchanted belt with the promise that no harm can befall him as long as it remains fastened around his waist. While all those things are great where sentimentality is concerned, however, none prepare him for what proves to be a trial by fire. Gawain is too trusting, naïve, and cocksure to ever survive the world outside Arthur’s kingdom. Whether or not he’s a knight won’t stop people from assuming it based on his clothes nor their attempts to manipulate him upon discovering he’s not. He should be dead within hours.

Lowery knows this and visualizes it in a stunning 360-degree shot that sees Gawain bound and gagged in front of a tree before one revolution finds his corpse there instead. That’s the beauty of fables such as this, though. What should happen very often doesn’t because the lesson being learned is for the reader and hero both. Gawain’s check-stops are thus dark insofar as they deal with marauders and spirits and sirens trying their best to keep him from reaching his destination. They’re also subtly funny, though, in ways that can’t help but conjure images from the more ubiquitous and absurd Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Rather than entertaining, the laughter here is sharply pointed for additional bite to inevitably turn your every smile into a wince.

I can see Winifred’s (Erin Kellyman) appalled look even now when Gawain asks her what she’ll give him in return for finding her head. There’s no more perfect example of his immaturity than the pause stopping him from his chivalrous duty to wonder aloud about payment. That entitlement coupled with his ever-present fear of the unknown (pleading with Barry Keoghan‘s scavenger and flinching away from a giant that might have been offering the very help he requested from her) becomes his character. He’s not here to own up to his act on Christmas. He’s here so people don’t think he didn’t. And intent is everything when it comes to honor. This journey demands humility and all Gawain brings is vanity. It’s a wonder he gets to the end.

With impeccable production design, gorgeous cinematography, and a leisurely pace that never bores in its pursuit to turn Gawain back, The Green Knight fulfills its aesthetic promise made over a year ago before A24 indefinitely postponed its release due to COVID. It fulfills the promise it makes narratively to Arthurian lore too with a singular depiction of an age-told morality play that culminates in a breathtaking, dialogue-free visual collage of the future that steals from the best in The Last Temptation of Christ. And how can you not champion Patel’s casting in this role? He’s equally proficient at the endearingly misguided impetuousness of a boy pretending to be a man and the hardened yet sorrowful gaze of a monarch unfazed by duty in the face of morality.

The question is thus whether his Gawain can find that sweet spot in-between to be the just man deserving of loyalty and respect that Arthur was before a crown ever graced his head. Will these tests (rounded out by a luxurious manor of comfort and excess courtesy of Joel Edgerton‘s Lord) scare him into remaining that boy or transforming into that tyrant? Or will they help him reach within for the humble self-recognition of a flawed man who’s able to learn from his mistakes? That is the true sign of his mettle. That’s why his mother and uncle are yet unsure of knowing and why they’ve sent him on this path of tough love. It’s not the mission we remember, but how the hero reacts to its complexities.

[1] Dev Patel Photo by: Eric Zachanowich
[2] Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander (L-R) Photo by: Eric Zachanowich
[3] Ralph Ineson Photo by: Eric Zachanowich

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