While fantasy is not really my genre of choice, right up there with comedy for least likely genres I’ll go out of my way to embrace at the theater, Director David Lowery’s latest fantasy epic through A24 caught my eye for a lot of reasons. First off, Lowery was responsible for one of my favorite movies of the past decade, “A Ghost Story”, a supernatural fantasy drama exploring existentialism and life after death. Second, it’s released through A24 which has become one of, if not my favorite entertainment studio over the last decade thanks to the wide array of unique and challenging films that they send out, few of which have ever truly disappointed me. Put them together and “The Green Knight” instantly became a priority for me. Based on the legendary 14th– century Arthurian poem focusing on King Arthur’s nephew Gawain and the game he plays with the titular Green Knight, the modern take on the story expands the poem into an over two-hour experience that might genuinely be the most artistically sound fantasy and medieval movie I’ve seen in years. Sadly, its symbolism and patient storytelling might be a little too much for those with more…I’ll say mainstream sensibilities.
“The Green Knight” focuses mostly on Dev Patel as Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s nephew, who takes on a Christmas Day challenge from a mysterious, tree-like Green Knight. Gawain only has to strike the Knight once to win the Knight’s axe but must expect a similar strike during a meeting a year later. Gawain succeeds, chopping off the Knight’s head, and the film mostly focuses on Gawain’s journey to the Knight’s chapel to complete the challenge. Along the way he faces roadblocks, both literal and figurative, that test his resolve and his nobility. David Lowrey, who also wrote the screenplay, clearly felt inspired by this simple poem giving “The Green Knight” a truly artistic touch blessing the project with all kinds of small details that it would take way too much space to delve into here. Sadly, this is where I think a lot of people will see this movie as more pretentious and boring than the artistic wonder that it is. “The Green Knight” goes places you wouldn’t expect and certainly isn’t in a hurry to get from point A to point B which is kind of the idea. It relishes in exploring the tediousness of Gawain’s journey only speeding up as he gets closer to his objective, mimicking how Gawain himself probably feels about something he dreads having to do. This requires a lot of patience from the viewer and is far from the only aspect of the film that will easily turn off those seeking the next mainstream fantasy experience.
With that said, “The Green Knight” is not for the faint of heart but few truly great movies are. This is not the next “Lord of the Rings”. It’s much more artsy, filled with symbolism, patient storytelling, and subtlety that forces the viewer to dissect every tiny little detail to understand the lessons being learned by Gawain throughout his journey. Some of these elements are taken right from the poem and its adaptations while others expand on the mythology all with the goal of examining Gawain’s evolution from selfish teenager to noble adult. Some have called it a telling of “the hero’s journey”, but I interpreted it to be a telling of the human journey where every roadblock and decision offers a chance of redemption and growth and how we respond to those challenges can directly impact what’s to follow. Everything from Gawain’s decision to be so relentless with the Green Knight to his asking mythical giants to carry him the rest of the way represents decisions that play into Gawain’s growth to knighthood including his merciless treatment of the Green Knight and his willingness to attempt the easy way out of his challenge. Every side quest Gawain faces, even something as simple as welcoming a fox into a cave with him, is a step forward or backward in his growth as a person and a character.
Another thing I absolutely loved about this movie is Lowery’s cinematography and use of color. Of course in a movie called “The Green Knight” you might expect color to be particularly important. Visually this film is stunning showcasing a much more stripped down version of Medieval times. The scenery is gorgeous and the backdrops immerse you in this difficult journey where Gawain is forced to recon with nature in order to meat his fate, making everything feel that much more like a right of passage. The use of color fascinated me with this film. We get a neat moment near the movie’s climax where the significance of the color green is discussed ranging from its usual connection to envy to its depiction of growth and nature taking back the world from humanity coinciding with Gawain’s own battle with the natural world and his journey of self-growth. But colors are depicted in every stage of Gawain’s journey. For example one scene sees him come across a challenge of needing to retrieve the head of a ghost and when he dives into the water his world turns red, the color of violence and seduction which both played a role in the ghost’s fate as well as Gawain’s future. There’s a scene where Gawain tries to take the easy way out of his quest and catch a ride with some giants which is bathed in a blue mist, the color of trust, loyalty, sincerity, wisdom, and confidence which Gawain could learn from avoiding the easy solution in that moment. As Gawain approaches his final challenge with the knight the world turns yellow, a classic color depicting caution as if Gawain isn’t ready for what lies in store but also serves to represent optimism, a hope that Gawain has learned from his journey. These simply touches are prime examples of why Lowery as a writer and director is such a fascinating artist and why this movie is so much deeper than what you might assume on its surface.
While Lowery should be commended for his handling of the material, his star Dev Patel deserves immense credit for carrying this film on his shoulders and embracing the challenge of telling a mostly singularly focused journey through a fantasy world that lies somewhere between believable realism and the outskirts of our imagination. Patel is flanked by a supporting cast comprised of the likes of Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Erin Kellyman, Sarita Choudhury and others, but it is very wholly Patel’s film and combining the actor’s commitment with Lowrey’s immense talent for artistic storytelling we get a complex and challenging film that tests the limits of what artistic and character-focused fantasy can become. I will admit though, walking out of the movie I couldn’t help but feel for the audience that surrounded me who all seemed confused, frustrated, even angry about what they saw. Even I found myself a little bored at times and felt like there was a lot of fat that could have been chopped off. My initial reaction was that “The Green Knight” was a bit self-indulgent. That’s why I waited a day before I wrote down my thoughts because it was only by taking time to process the experience that I understood the hidden elements that lie below the surface. Like any medium, how invested you are in either the artistry or the entertainment makes a huge difference. This movie can very easily be too esoteric for fans of mainstream cinema and that’s okay. To each their own. Not everyone goes to the movies for high art, but that’s what you get from this film. My warning to anyone is don’t go into this expecting to be simply entertained. Go expecting to be challenged. It’s the only way you’ll enjoy it.
“The Green Knight” might be an acquired taste, but if you’re willing to dive deeper into its layers and embrace its character-centric, patient storytelling style it’s a must see. Writer-director David Lowrey clearly approached this story with plenty of inspiration and that shines brightly on the screen from almost every angle, from its cinematography and visual aesthetic to its fantasy elements and creative dissection of its source material. While I can understand why many might be frustrated by this experience, especially if they weren’t prepared for the in-depth slow-paced story that they’re in store for, “The Green Knight” to me is a perfect example of fantasy cinema at its best. Perhaps the most interesting compliment I can give is that it also comes after a decade of attempts to revitalize Arthurian mythology for the big screen (“Legend of the Sword”, “Transformers: The Last Knight”, “The Kid Who Would Be King”) and somehow the best film so far to remind us why these immortal tales have stood the test of time isn’t even about Arthur. It’s about one of his own learning the values of courage, honestly, and integrity in a mesmerizing journey of human growth and personal evolution. While it might not be for everyone, “The Green Knight” is exactly what I wanted as a lover of art cinema and stories. As many have said before me, it really deserves to be a new fantasy classic.