Written and directed by David Lowery
Stories of brave knights fighting foes natural and supernatural is passé, says David Lowery, who does away with bloodshed and focuses on thoughts over fights, pathetic fallacies, and how life’s true tests are all in the mind.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the story Lowery freely adapts, is a story as old as dirt and a twisted ancient tree upon which thousands of other stories later bloomed. A simple story of knightly conquest, it sees Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), a young knight, volunteer to play a game with a strange figure who enters the king’s court one Christmas Eve. Desperate to make a name for himself, he steps forward where older knights hesitate, and the intruder puts it to Gawain: he may deal him the stranger any blow, but must consent to meet him a year from now and get the same in return.
Gawain swings, and off comes the stranger’s head. A brief moment of tentative celebration, before the decapitated body rises, picks up his head and bids au revoir – see you in a year!
That morning, Gawain awoke in a whorehouse, and his familiarity with the path back up to the castle suggests he’s been a creature of comfort so far, and not someone learned in the ways of honor that the knighthood preaches. As time winds down to the day he’s meant to set out to meet the Green Knight, it’s obvious he’d rather do anything but, drinking his liver away, a little in celebration of his newfound notoriety, but mostly to drown his sense of impending doom. The fateful time arrives, and with some serious prodding from his king, he sets out however.
The Green Knight follows the initial beats of its source material, but from then on, Lowery takes the reins and lets the horses loose to run ahead, so that we may better take in the journey. It’s slow going, and over its runtime, you won’t find much in the way of violence, daring feats, narrow escapes or great romances. Instead, it’s a sensuous journey through barren beauty, as Gawain trots, then walks, then stumbles through fields, forests, bogs, and moors, a naive boy laboring under the consequences of an impulsive grab for glory. Dev Patel’s big eyes take in the world, and hitched breaths stumble from trembling lips as he makes his way through the wasteland, the royal court’s fuckboy finally getting a slice of the life he wanted to glory of, all on the way to what may be certain death.
Death cut a similarly large figure in Lowery’s last, 2014’s Ghost Story in which a man dies, only to come back to watch over his still-living partner, standing quietly watching over her as she first grieves, then moves on, and finally moves away, leaving him to haunt a plot of land for eternity as he lingers on feelings he can’t let go.
The pacing and atmosphere is similarly quiet and contemplative in The Green Knight, but the feelings aren’t quite as visceral. Gawain is similarly haunted, but it’s by ghosts far more intrusive and demanding, and Lowery has a deft ability to blend the formal and surreal.
What hinders The Green Knight is its central character’s passivity in the middle of it all. While the ghost in Ghost Story was a stoic presence throughout, it also featured Rooney Mara acting her ass off to add a balance. That’s not quite the case here, where Lowery opts for striking visuals and haunting imagery to enthral his audience. Yes, there are several beautiful passages in The Green Knight, but the flash of the cold visual splendour feels like it doesn’t have fire within.
The many odd encounters that come Gawain’s way feel strangely ethereal, as Patel’s standard reaction to them all is bemusement with varying degrees of shock – he doesn’t play an active part, rather the entire movie happens to him, and while the question of a knight’s honor, and a personal desire for it has enough weight to keel Lowery’s ship, it heads for a foggy horizon, all too interested in existential quandaries that it is quite satisfied with just teasing instead of actually entering into a conversation with.
The Green Knight is a minimalist take, a cool and collected undoing of a romantic tradition, like purchasing an antique thatch-roofed hut, gutting it, and installing a new kitchen with slavish devotion to the stripped-back teachings of Nordic design. The result may be a feast for the eyes with sleek countertops, dramatic hi-tech appliances and a kitchen island for conversation, but it has little of the patina, charm and texture of the original it replaced.