A masterful meditation on the hero's journey, The Green Knight gives writer-director David Lowery the reins to expertly craft a profoundly atmospheric film that invigorates the senses to the point of breathlessness. It sees the equally breathtaking Dev Patel give his best performance to date.
The film, an adaptation of the Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, takes many creative liberties with its source material while still maintaining a high degree of faithfulness to the text. It follows Patel as Gawain, an ebullient man who spends most of his days drinking and fornicating without much of a care in the world. The most accurate modern term would be to identify him as a fuckboy of the highest order. He is charming yet chaotic, a combination that foreshadows complications for his life.
These complications for Gawain come knocking at the front door of the castle while he's in the midst of celebrating Yuletide with the king. Interrupting the revelry and feasting is an imposing figure on horseback, the Green Knight himself in all his horrifying glory. He emerges from the shadows to issue a challenge: Any who can strike a blow against him will have a chance to do so. However, in one year this person must go on a quest where, at its conclusion, the Knight will return the blow in equal measure.
It offers the supposed honor of battle to those who wish to make a name for themselves, though at a steep price.
Gawain, rather impulsively, steps forward to take up this challenge and precedes to behead the Knight. Rather than die at his feet, the Knight rises back up again and laughs ominously at Gawain’s act before riding off on his horse with head in hand. Gawain is initially heralded as a hero, whose myth begins taking on absurd heights untethered from reality, rather than a headstrong fool who struck down a defenseless opponent. However, he will realize he cannot escape the inevitable passage of time. A year soon begins creeping up on Gawain, marked by a spinning wheel in an unsettling puppet show that portrays the Knight’s beheading over and over. Left with the agreement he entered into when he rose up to meet the challenge, Gawain will now undertake a perilous journey to meet the Knight and his destiny.
That is where The Green Knight really hits its stride even as its protagonist frequently stumbles. Gawain is not really cut out for this and seemingly has no idea what he is doing. Lowery calls attention to his flaws in big and small ways, though none more wonderful than when he must escape from a predicament that left him tied up. As the camera circles away from Gawain under a tree, much like the hand of a clock marking the passage of time, it shows a potential future where our hero did not make it more than a day’s journey out. It establishes the central theme that this journey is about Gawain’s foibles in addition to his virtues through a simple yet impactful visual sequence that appropriately establishes the stakes.
Gawain is a deeply flawed man who is struggling to find a path for himself and Patel captures this internal strife with a confidence that is marvelous to see. There is a delightful irony that Patel’s confidence as an actor is most seen in portraying the most unconfident and occasionally bumbling character possible. Yet it is precisely that juxtaposition that makes the film a refreshingly deeper look at Gawain the character rather than just the journey he goes on. Too often, the story of someone traveling from point A to point B can swallow up the character actually undertaking the journey. That is not the case here as Patel shines through in a remarkably layered performance that is his best work to date.
What is similarly layered is the visual presentation. Lowery uses various techniques and styles, all of which come together to build an overwhelming sense of atmosphere. I say overwhelming as a compliment to the film as Lowery isn’t afraid to throw a lot at his audience. Whether it's a scene in the water with various colors illuminating Gawain taking a dive or coming upon giant beings that tower over him in the fog, every awe-inspiring moment is etched in my brain. The pristine presentation on display by Lowery only makes the impending doom of Gawain all the more affecting. Every new breathtaking sight he gets to see may soon be his last. When paired with an ambitious score by composer Daniel Hart, who has done similarly great work with Lowery on prior films such as 2013’s Ain't Them Bodies Saints and 2017’s A Ghost Story, you get lost in the expansive world being created with such technical precision.
It makes it all the more tragic to know it may soon all come to an end for Gawain. And for what?
That is the central tension at the core of The Green Knight. Gawain repeatedly indicates how he is looking for some sort of purpose or honor to define himself by. It is a code seen in many heroic quest tales where the journey’s undertaker believes it will turn them into someone better. What makes The Green Knight so incisive is that it feels so empty, futile even. Gawain is not getting better, he may even be getting worse. Where Lowery gracefully fills in the gaps left in the poem, he reveals a man without an idea of what he wants to be or how his future will be shaped by his actions. It is only in conversing with the Knight, who is a being of few words, that Gawain begins to get some idea and understanding of his life.
It would be a crime to not mention how excellently cast Ralph Ineson is as the Knight. It's his voice that, even as it's used sparingly, completely draws you in. It's both menacing and gravelly while also reverential in its gritty beauty. There could not be a more perfect voice and presence to give the later scenes where he talks with Gawain. Lowery wisely uses the Knight sparingly, making it all the more impactful when he's on screen. Ineson’s voice ensures the discussions the Knight has with Gawain are enthralling and moving, giving us a sense of what the young traveler is feeling after his long journey. Though he only says a few words, each utterance has the power to crush with its emotional weight.
What remains the most poignant aspect of the film is a conclusion that serves as a sort of coda to the journey. I won't reveal any details of the ending, but will say it completely knocked me flat. While the film had a thread of whimsy and playfulness throughout it, in a way that feels honoring of the tone of the poem, the ending leaves it all on the table. Told with no dialogue and utilizing Lowery’s mastery of visual storytelling, it is this final sequence that makes for an absolutely revelatory final note. It is an unshakeable and outstanding denouement, ensuring all that makes The Green Knight such an emotionally resonant journey is given an appropriately stunning finale that utterly chops you in two.
You can stream The Green Knight starting this Thursday, August 19.