When Sir Gawain departs Camelot, he rides past a scene of desolation. A once-prosperous forest stripped of its lush greenery by human hands, only splintered wood and dust remain. Through his journey, Gawain (Dev Patel) is greeted by similar, if not entirely equal imagery, constantly evocative of mankind’s awkward, unwanted presence within the natural world. One year prior, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) approached King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his Knights of the Round Table, conjured up by Gawain’s mother, Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), seeking a participant for his Christmas Game. Should one of Arthur’s knights land a blow against him, the knight shall receive his mighty axe, but must seek him out exactly one year later to receive an equal blow in return. When Gawain, reluctant to accept though eager to bring honor to his name, agrees to the Green Knight’s terms, the humanoid creature only drops his axe and lowers his head to reveal an oaken neck, offering it to Gawain freely. Naturally, Gawain succeeds, but at what cost? The Green Knight retrieves his head and rides off into the night. Gawain understands he cannot do the same. Foliage sprouts in the stone cracks on the hall floor where the Green Knight’s blood has been spilt.
David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a modern reckoning with a medieval fable. It’s a haunting, confounding, surprisingly erotic fantasy epic; a confrontation between man and nature, nature and religion, man and himself. Adapted from the anonymously authored Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery’s austere yet spellbinding take on the simple 14th century legend evokes the same questions as the original work, interrogating the cost of one’s life for the sake of one’s honor when there is only certainty that they will die. “Greatness? Why is goodness not enough?” pleads Esel (Alicia Vikander), Gawain’s lover, a sex worker, whom he holds at arm’s length. But the film and Gawain’s quest carry a message that stretches far beyond the fantastical world of King Arthur, one about humanity’s inherent frailty in the face of far-reaching environmental destruction and what gods they have foolishly chosen in place of nature. As Gawain prepares to meet his friendly opponent, he arms himself with his mother’s enchanted belt, while his shield—adorned with biblical imagery—is blessed by a priest with prayer and holy water to protect him on the journey ahead. It reads as overwhelmingly ironic, and very nearly funny. An ultimately meaningless act that is no match against an adversary which obeys no master.
Gawain is tasked with a six-day journey to a place called the Green Chapel, where the Green Knight allegedly sits awaiting the arrival of King Arthur’s young nephew to meet his challenge. But as is any epic quest, Gawain’s is one fraught with a series of obstacles, dreamlike setpieces which seem to operate somewhere between sleep and waking. The sprawling mountains, rolling hills and dense gloom are rivetingly captured by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, as Gawain wades through murky, rippling waters, tumbles down sloping foliage or bathes in moonlight so textured it could have been hand-painted in acrylics. Palermo is further aided by the natural splendor of Ireland’s landscapes, rendering it as difficult to discern what’s physical scenery or special effects trickery (or both) as it is to untangle the cryptic circumstances of Gawain’s journey. In a clearing, he encounters an unkempt young man (Barry Keoghan, truly natural at playing a dirty little trickster), who claims to have lost family in battle—a bit too keen to assist Gawain in directing passage towards the Green Chapel. Later, Gawain seeks shelter at a seemingly abandoned cottage, whose inhabitant, Winifred (Erin Kellyman) eventually returns with an eerie request.
After finding companionship with an oddly benevolent fox, Gawain, starved, exhausted and chilled from bitter cold, happens upon a lonely castle, occupied by an affable Lord (Joel Edgerton), familiar with Gawain and his quest; a blind, unspeaking older woman (Helena Browne); and a Lady who’s the striking doppelgänger of Esel. It is at this castle, during a prolonged if off-putting stay in which the inhabitants welcome Gawain to rest up for his impending confrontation, that Gawain must confront the lure of illicit desire, giving way to the most achingly erotic scene I have witnessed in a new mainstream release in ages. While working as a beautiful push and pull between the temptation of quick release and the virtue (daresay, honor) of forestalled desire, Dev Patel’s magnetic performance of Gawain’s longing for valor ever-shadowed by a peripheral lack of confidence instills scenes of sex and adventure with an alluring desperation. Also, Patel is naturally gifted with such ludicrous amounts of sex appeal that much of the film is sensual just by merit of him being in it—though, the phallic consequences of large axes and Excalibur should not be discredited among the more obvious and, uh, emissive imagery.
But the Lady also confronts Gawain with the very nature of the Green Knight himself. Why is he not red, or yellow, or another color? “He’s not of this earth,” Gawain answers—but the Lady is quick to refute him, for there is nothing that could be less true of the Green Knight. Green is the color of earth. Green is what is left when we die, she explains. Green is a hue which infuses every shot of the film, even in the deep black contrasts of nighttime lit only by the glow of the moon. Green is everywhere, even when it seems as if it shouldn’t be. Vikander’s delivery of the ensuing monologue is both captivating and deeply disturbing, the Lady’s intentions towards Gawain further obscured by her dalliance with witchcraft—leading one to believe that, perhaps, her uncanny visage bears more otherworldly significance than mere coincidence.
But obscurities are what anchor The Green Knight as Lowery leans into the ambiguity that defines the original text and replaces it with his own equally mystifying visual interpretations. By blending his abstract sensibilities seen in 2017’s A Ghost Story with the grand fantasy of his live-action Pete’s Dragon, Lowery has crafted a breathtaking, titillating adaptation of folklore with a denouement that carries real-world weight. Though the Lady’s fervent monologue is imbued with an overly conspicuous environmentalist subtext, it bears consequence towards Gawain’s final confrontation. The Green Knight can be slain, but he will never die. He will always return to the earth to which he is bound, which can be destroyed by man but will retaliate tenfold. Our petty allegiances to religion—now interchangeable with industrialism, corporations and capitalism—is not something that can save us. The Christmas Game was always unevenly matched, just as mankind’s battle with nature is a losing one so long as we refuse submission to its whims. If the Green Knight slices Gawain’s head, it will not grow back. Neither will humanity.
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery
Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.