Bravery is scarce in the heart of Gawain (Dev Patel), at least in the intrepid form attributed to medieval warriors fighting wars with immeasurable carnage. “I’m not a knight,” he exclaims ceaselessly throughout a quest to defend his honor in Arthurian times. Others claim he, in fact, resembles a heroic figure, yet underneath the chainmail, insecurity festers.
Only facing the lethal challenge of the Green Knight, a mythical stand-in for death, might grant him a praiseworthy accomplishment he seeks. Perhaps then the imposter syndrome ravaging his self-image might subside. Imaginatively based on the ancient romance from an unknown author, “The Green Knight” is writer-director David Lowery’s most entrancing work in a career dotted with grand swings of boundless inventiveness.
Told in sumptuously gritty imagery, this epic feat of bold imagination, unconcerned with mitigating its creative force for the sake of unadventurous audiences, has an unconventional film grammar and irregular structure that peers into the different possible outcomes of the would-be paladin’s trek. Take, for example, the use of sporadic and quick flashing text on screen to highlight an act of kindness or a turn of events. Nothing behaves as expected in Lowery’s thematically rich and visually rousing knight’s tale.
The nephew of famed King Arthur (a frail Sean Harris) and Guinevere (Kate Dickie), Gawain has no stories of great triumphs to tell, no battle scars to speak of, and so this opportunity to head into the unknown acts as a brutal rite of passage in an honor-bound place, this is his coming-of-age, a test of his valor. But fear plunges his mind at every turn. Gawain begs for his life, pleads for answers, and reconsiders his commitment on more than one occasion.
Suffocated in the ambivalence of his character—eager to fulfill his promise but terrified of the price tag—Patel turns in a performance not of ineffable strength but of relatable human weakness. Tempted to divert into a safer route towards a less honorable destiny, the real battlefield for Gawain is a mental one. Time after time, he convinces himself to see the journey through despite violent and supernatural hurdles.
This is certainly an unorthodox comparison, but in thinking about this protagonist, the bizarre cartoon series “Courage the Cowardly Dog” came to mind, as existing in a similar wavelength. Not only are the leads cowards pushing through their apprehension, but they both inhabit a realm with demonic villains that read as the product of hallucinations. Sure, it may ring like a silly reference, but it’s worth considering how much influence texts like this one probably have on pop culture.
Patel’s rendition of the embattled non-knight operates from innocence, that of someone who hasn’t yet faced the deceitfulness of people. He believes in others’ intentions at face value, which soon proves a costly mistake. In his most intensely layered on-screen appearance to date, the British actor seems to internalize Gawain’s tearful consternation. The turmoil he exudes grounds the whimsical elements on real pain.
Near the film’s conclusion, Patel’s classic role gets further intricacy in a silent passage, a movie within a movie. Glimpses of a forced resolve show up earlier on but lack the impact of this decisive montage. Like a saint being tested by an arrogant deity, Gawain must repeatedly dissipate doubt in order to continue, but as those feelings of uncertainty mount, we begin to increasingly perceive him as an immature individual in over his head. If he could set in motion this adventure, is he prepared to finish it, blood and all?
Meanwhile, the personification of indomitable nature, the Green Knight (voiced by Ralph Ineson) is simultaneously a malevolent and calming presence, as if unperturbed by Gawain’s crisis because, to him, all cycles are normal and unquestionable. Wooden in texture, an anthropomorphic tree, the titular entity exemplifies the application of visual effects with a narrative purpose beyond spectacle. Likewise, Gawain’s digital fox companion and several otherworldly beings don’t subtract from the overall earthiness of the picture; they seamlessly belong to it.
Lowery leans into the magical with the help of cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo. With the camera upside as Gawain crosses green pastures, the framing when giant figures in the background reinforce his sense of inferiority, or in the yellowish fog that covers the forest once danger looms closer, the filmmaker’s craft details to elevate the world from mere period realism to striking enchantment laced with inhospitable mystery. Costumes that dazzle, particularly in the kingdom where crowns and capes abound, seem modern in aesthetic and thus carry an elegance that isn’t distant but more within reach.
Scenes play out with relaxed pacing. Gawain walks into a space, contemplates, investigates, and eventually comes into contact with his next host. Not all those dragged-out instances feel merited individually, but as a repeated editing motif, it creates a certain mood of time expanded and leisurely portrayed as if given this conflicted gentleman the chance to grapple with what’s in front of him in real-time. The spell of silences and stillness works best if we subvert any assumptions about how scenes should unfurl.
In each of these encounters, with bandits, ghosts, or a puzzling couple, gallows humor creeps into the frame to surprise us—a reminder of the director’s playfulness within serious topics. As Essel, Alicia Vikander injects a dose of raw passion into the mostly docile Gawain while also being the bearer of a tricky gift. No one in the thespians in the supporting ensemble outshines the others in time or importance, but all interestingly populate the land, including a mischievous Barry Keoghan and a flirtatious Joel Edgerton.
Lowery has previously harnessed fantastical premises to dig into the existential. In “A Ghost Story,” a cartoonish apparition traverses time and space to ponder on our beautiful insignificance within the universe. And even in his first big-budget foray, “Pete’s Dragon,” the central relationship between the boy and the enormous creature is anchored on recognizable emotional hardship.
For “The Green Knight,” the crucible pertains to a person striving to do what is expected of him, whether he completes the task, perishes trying, or escapes from his ordained duty to take on more responsibility back home. A silent vision that plays like a movie within the movie, as well as the voices aiming to dissuade and discourage him (some of them in disturbing fashion), are Lowery’s cinematic vehicles to speculate and invest us in this monumental saga.
After all, we’ve all overanalyzed our personal turning points about others’ opinions. We’ve succumbed to outside influences and, hopefully, overcome them for our sake. That this movie exists in all its glorious visual excess and semi-cryptic storytelling (A24 has diligently released materials explaining the historical basics) reminds us of what the art form can encompass when resources are behind a ravishing concept from an artist with a nearly impeccable track record.
In a soundscape comprised of Gregorian chants and Daniel Hart’s evocatively soaring score, the loudest rhythm is the pounding heart of Gawain, a man willing to endure gruesomeness to demonstrate his value because here righteousness supersedes everything else. The best fables illuminate our flawed condition with moral teaching, a lesson to apply in our real exchanges. These stories often bargain in absolute truths, in the idea that good and evil are binary and thus one must choose a band.
But what if Lowery’s interpretation is less definitive from where we stand, centuries after Gawain’s era. Instead of enshrining his final decision, this take exemplifies how trapped the young man is between two pathways that offer either corruption or sacrifice, options that serve others but not him, that answer to duty and not desire. The lack of confidence in either one is what makes this frightened member of the Round Table so fascinating. In selecting legacy over infamy, to not covet power but having the courage to stay the fateful course, immortality awaits. [A]