Review: Enthralling 'The Green Knight' a meditative exploration of the hero's journey
Courtesy of A24
An epic meal of a film, David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” unspools its vast scope in one transfixing two hour mediation. Filled with finite mysteries and symbolisms that’ll require multiple watches to appreciate, this Arthurian tale embarks on a hero’s journey rooted in both enchanting backgrounds and magical characters. Though he doesn’t need to prove himself to anyone, Dev Petel anchors Lowery’s towering vision with soft uneasiness and sexy charisma. Most of the film is built and shot around his persona, but the conquest and the journey in which he mounts is an exercise in patience. It’s not an easy film to digest, but get past the initial hesitation (you might wonder, after five minutes, what's going on) and submit to Lowery’s carefully curated journey, and your endurance could surprise you.
An adaptation of the epic 14th century poem, “Sir Gawin and the Green Knight,” Lowery’s “The Green Knight” follows Sir Gawain (Petel), nephew to the King (Sean Harris), as he begins the ultimate test of knighthood. Eager to prove himself on the court, Gawain takes on the challenge of the elusive, strange Green Knight when he strolls into Camelot on Christmas day looking for an opponent. His “game” proposal isn’t met with robust enthusiasm from the other soldiers as his tricks are life or death. The rules are simple enough: anyone who can strike a blow against him must in return allow him to deal a similar attack one year later. During the duel, Gawin axes the Green Knight’s head, however, the knight picks it up with a cryptic message: “one year” and rides in the distance with a sly grimace on his face. The clock is ticking.
What would usually ensue, if the film were set up at a franchise starving studio, is a cheap, exploitative take on classic literature. But Lowery's grasp on the material, originally penned by Anonymous, doesn’t feel dated or misinterpreted, though its scholarly implications go far beyond this review. Instead, “The Green Knight” is unafraid to ask tough questions surrounding moral salvation and takes several immersive swings, allowing scenes to linger on just a fraction longer than we’re used to, forcing moviegoers to bask in the stillness despite what our tiny attention spans crave.
Petel brings an earnestness to Gawain, which Lowery writes as headstrong with plenty of perseverance, as he navigates the tribulations of his Mother (Sarita Choudhury) and a prostitute (Alica Vikander - dialing up that “Ex Machina” energy times 11) whom he’s starting to foster a relationship with. But none have proved quite as striking as the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a towering, tree-like figure that looks very similar to Groot from “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He presents Gawain with the ultimate ethical conundrum about his eventual destiny, but nobody will lead him there, he must accept it on his own terms.
And so begins his journey into the unknown Medieval landscape where looters await in the forest and dead bodies lay untouched in their final resting place on the battlefield. It’s not your typical quest: Gawain isn’t heading towards redemption, but a near and certain death. Shot mostly in natural light by Andrew Droz Palermo and scored by Daniel Hart, this long, slow voyage feels as though you’re stepping through an art museum. If you don’t find yourself enamoured with the narrative progression (which, admittedly, can be slow for comfort), the luscious visuals and immaculate orchestration leave a resounding impact.
But it would be enough if half of “The Green Knight” worked on its own terms, and though Lowery has dealt with the odd structuring and the ramifications of time thanks to films like “A Ghost Story,” this is a bold detour that not only infuses the worn-out “King Arthur” genre of sorcery epics with wisdom, but feels like a completed canvas. “The Green Knight” turns in the blood, swords, and hokey scenery for something deeper and hypnotic; a dizzying fantasy that’s crazy enough to ask viewers to forgo everything they expect from traditional lore and put their faith in themselves.
THE GREEN KNIGHT is now playing in theaters.