The first weapon Sir Gawain uses in The Green Knight, the new fantasy film written and directed by David Lowery, is Excalibur. King Arthur’s legendary sword glows and hums with menace, and Gawain wields it with authority he has not quite yet earned. What makes this film subversive – a departure from many modern fantasy stories – is that scene is also the only time Gawain wields a weapon. This Gawain is no hero, but a young man who learns the meaning of honor during a difficult, perplexing quest through a primordial vision of medieval England. There is little irony or modernity on display, and Lowery’s visual flourishes, along with his command of tone, helps us accept this unusual commitment to sincerity.

After a brief hallucinatory prologue, we find Gawain (Dev Patel) waking up in a brothel. He has slept and drunk his way through a period of peace during the reign of King Arthur (Sean Harris), who is now so old he can barely pick up his sword. It is Christmas, so Gawain arrives at the Round Table for merriment, and realizes from a brief conversation with Arthur he has done nothing to earn his status as a knight. The court’s unexpected guest is The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a hulking supernatural brute who looks like a talking tree from Lord of the Rings crossed with Swamp Thing. Ineson is unrecognizable, except for a menacing baritone you may recall from The Witch.

Eager to prove himself, Gawain volunteers to partake in a “game” with The Green Knight: Gawain gets to strike him however hard he wants, and provided the Green Knight survives, he gets to return the blow next Christmas. Gawain severs his head, then a strange thing happens. The Green Knight picks up his severed head, bellows, “One year hence,” and rides off into the wilderness. The film follows Gawain for the following year, focusing primarily on his difficult journey.

To describe what happens on the journey is to suggest The Green Knight is rich with danger, peril and action. Lowery is markedly going for a more ponderous approach. Starting with the “game” and onward, each scene unfolds deliberately, giving the audience ample time to ponder over what precisely is happening. What makes this immersive – a quality that lasts its entire runtime – is an unexplained mix of the natural and supernatural. During the beheading sequence, for example, Lowery cuts to Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury), a sorceress who performs a sinister-looking ritual. If there is any connection between these sequences, Lowery keeps it oblique. Many of Gawain’s travails unfolds with dream logic as a guiding principle, except the thrust of his quest is enough to ensure we know his greater purpose.

The imagery and editing are another key aspect to this sustained immersion. Lowery, along with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, rarely opt for a traditional camera perspective. He frames Gawain in mountains, forests and castles so that he never quite seems proportional to his surroundings. Shadows envelop many of the shots, although Lowery references fantasy films from the 20th century with the occasional shock of psychedelic color. All these choices, no matter how big or small, serve the story of Gawain’s path toward honor. There is a remarkable dolly shot when Gawain gingerly passes through an empty battlefield on his horse. He makes small talk with the battle’s lone survivor (Barry Keoghan), seemingly indifferent to the suffering, and background carnage tells us more about Gawain than any dialogue. We hope Gawain learns his lesson, except when he bears witness to literal giants in the distance, he can only think to ask for directions.

Patel is in practically every scene of The Green Knight, and he mostly eschews his natural charisma for a naïve, entitled character who thrives on self-preservation. One of the film’s rich rewards is how, through one incident and trial after another, he finally learns what it means to be honorable. At first, he treats it as just another word, although a horror-adjacent sequence with the ethereal Winifred (Erin Kellyman) introduces the idea bluntly. While Ineson’s The Green Knight represents the biggest challenge of Gawain’s honor, Alicia Vikander (in a dual-role) represents the most complex challenge. She tempts Gawain in more ways than one, and how he navigates these temptations is more about decency than purity.

The Green Knight asks a lot. The dialogue veers between modern and antiquated English, and few of the characters are relatable in any modern way. Even more than the aforementioned Lord of the Rings, there are a lot of scenes where Gawain walks and waits in total silence. But there is a reason this story gets told and retold again, so Lowery is determined to strip away all that is familiar in order to find something more immediate, more primal. The imagery and tension of whether Gawain concludes the “game” should be enough to suspend your disbelief, and the rewards are uncommon to most modern movies. How Lowery ultimately resolves his biggest tension is a narrative risk – one that he sustains up to the final line of dialogue – although he earns the goodwill to push his film is the direction he does. Honor cannot be properly understood and respected, after all, until we consider the dire consequences of its opposite.

David Lowery takes bold risks with his primordial, occasionally psychedelic update of the Arthurian legend that ultimately reap uncommon rewards.
86 %
Honor System
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