Every year we moviegoers are blessed with a few films that feel visionary. David Lowery's The Green Knight is one of those films. It is such a confident film that it forces you to bend to its will. It is a film brave enough to be so many things at once that it easily moves beyond a simple fantasy classification.
Gawain (a fierce Dev Patel) is the arrogant nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris). His mother is the witch Morgan La Fey (Sarita Choudhury). It is clear his lack of ambition has kept him from knighthood. He instead prefers the company of Essel (Alicia Vikander) at the local brothel. She dreams of being his "lady." He would never risk his chance at glory and praise.
One Christmas Day, the Green Knight arrives with his skin like bark and a mysterious axe that seems to cause greenery to sprout around it. He offer a Christmas game to anyone willing to take the challenge. Any knight brave enough can lay one blow on him, provided that the Green Knight can return the same blow the following year. Gawain sees his chance to prove himself a hero and quickly accepts the challenge. He cuts the knight's head off and is ready to bask in his power when the knight reawakens, picks up his head and rides off.
A year quickly passes and Gawain wastes it away. He has become a legend but one with a fate that no one would desire. He is pushed out to meet his challenge and thus he sets out to find the knight in the Green Chapel. His mother gifts him a magical girdle that will protect him from any blow, a sign of the cowardly nature of Gawain. The journey is full of tests, psychedelic trips and foes both real and supernatural.
David Lowery has so much command over his film here. We have had plenty of fantasy films and TV shows in the last decade and yet The Green Knight feels uninfluenced from any of them. This is a different beast than anything you have seen before. The A24 aesthetic is present. The film is stoned and deeply metal in a way few films can achieve. Lowery understands this story has had many interpretations over the year. He even nods to this by using different fonts to mark chapter titles.
Lowery creates a Arthurian world where nature abounds in both growth and decay. There are startling images that exemplify this respect for nature reclaiming the land from man. Gawain has visions at different times of being a corpse, suggesting that nature will over take him. The film is confident enough to let nature mean the literal and metaphorical. Gawain's nature and character is tested often by temptations in many forms.
Enough cannot be said about Andrew Droz Palermo's cinematography. The film is consistently mesmerizing. You can feel influences from Bergman's The Seventh Seal to John Milius's Conan the Barbarian with a heavy dose of psychedelic mushrooms. Dune is about the only film that could possibly match the visuals on display here. Malgosia Turzanska's costumes are also notable, finding a striking mix between fantastical and earthly.
Dev Patel gives a stirring performance as Gawain. This is a career highlight for him. Gawain is a deeply flawed character and Patel can embody bothe a sexiness and a childishish so essential to the role here. He is a deeply naive yet confident man who can't seem to understand what about him is being tested.
I could continue to lob praises at The Green Knight. Vikander delivers an amazing monologue on the color green at one point. Barry Keoghan and Joel Edgerton make the most out of their brief roles. The score is otherworldly and yet respectful of the period. There are riches to be found in this film in every aspect.
While I loved The Green Knight, I do recognize the film will be challenging to some. Its deliberate pace and willingness to morph its themes often will put off a casual viewer. This is a film you will want to think about for days before truly knowing how you feel about it. Films this rich in vision only come so often. Take the challenge, play the game.