“Why must you be a great man? Is being a good one not enough?”
This question serves as the key charge of David Lowery’s new film The Green Knight, an adaptation of the Middle English Arthurian poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.” It comes from Esel (Alicia Vikander), the lady love of Dev Patel’s Gawain, as he is preparing for an arduous journey that he knows he likely won’t return from. Both in establishing this journey, and the experiences he has upon it, Lowery (who also wrote the script for the film) has created a brutalist masterpiece that demands attention, and the finest film of his career.
For those who aren’t familiar with the Green Knight story (or haven’t thought about it since it was assigned to you for high school reading), the basic structure of the story is based on a very simple dilemma. The titular Green Knight, an unearthly beast, comes on Christmas Day to challenge the knights of the Round Table to a game: any knight may take any strike at him they wish, but with the understanding that in one year’s time, they must take the same blow. Gawain, the youngest and most impulsive of the Round Table, takes arms and easily beheads the Green Knight, only to watch in horror as he picks up his own head, laughs and reminds him of their bargain: in a years time, he must himself have his head lobbed off.
Thus the question of honor and greatness: whether just or not, do we face head on the consequences of our choices with bravery and faithfulness? Do we accept death nobly? Lowery’s telling of the film is extremely episodic, helpfully broken up by stylistic title cards that announce new chapters of Gawain’s tale and journey. But it is in the characterization of Gawain, the nephew of Arthur and presumed heir to the throne, that the heart of the film beats. Patel’s performance depicts a man who is equally haunted by his assumed destiny, and fully unable to grasp the dignity that is awaiting him. He is a bit of a drunkard, staying late at houses of ill repute, well known in wine houses. But when the opportunity appears to prove himself to be worthy of the title of knight, he seizes upon it, as a means to justify himself.
The film’s central concern of what defines honor is not met with easy answers, as Lowery’s take on the tales pulls this messy Gawain through truly harrowing experiences, both mystical and grounded; this juxtaposition of the supernatural butting against the mundane has been a trademark of the director’s work, but has never been stronger than here. And while the movie doesn’t ever fall into full horror territory, it is brimming with dread and menace, occupying claustrophobic fantasy landscapes that feel like they are choking around you.
Beyond the film’s lyrical script and breathtaking visual language, Lowery is blessed with some phenomenal performances. Patel’s Gawain, for all his overflowing of anxiety, uncertainty and longing for worth, serves as a remarkable center for characters to enter and exit as needed. Alicia Vikander pulls double duty in two roles so remarkably different I didn’t even know she played both until after I had seen the film. Sean Harris’ King Arthur, elderly and quietly savoring his twilight moments with whispered gravitas, offers merit to Gawain’s longing for nobility. And Barry Keoghan and Erin Kellyman both get outstanding, essentially one-scene moments to shine as stations along Gawain’s journey, challenging his perceptions of both himself and the world.
Ultimately, what makes The Green Knight work as a piece of outstanding, breathtaking art is the interplay between all these elements, a full sensory experience that is at times odd and off-putting, but never feels at odds or without purpose. It is packed with potent imagery and symbolism that will give viewers far more to chew on than one viewing will allow. It is an object to be studied, considered endlessly. It is the narrative of life itself, stumbling forward, hoping for greatness, constantly uncertain if we’ll arrive. And at the end of the journey, what else awaits us all but certain death, no matter how viciously we hope to escape it? The Green Knight shows us a vision of Gawain who in no small part is all of us, hoping we can make it back home, but certainly aware we will never quite be the same.
The Green Knight is set for release in theaters on July 30th.