The Green Knight

The Green Knight ★★★★★

Ethereal, enchanting, and enigmatic, The Green Knight is an intellectually challenging, intricately-layered masterpiece combining uniformly perfect performances, one of the finest scores in cinema history, stunning cinematography, and a thematically rich narrative that is ancient yet timeless, dreamlike yet palpable, and profoundly mytho-poetic yet undeniably veristic.

I'm not sure if I've ever seen another film three times in the theater within a single week, but this is a cinematic experience that for me warranted multiple viewings, as its striking images and fascinating story still continue to percolate through my consciousness to this day. I had been anticipating this film since its first trailer crossed my desk and I'm happy to report that not only did this film not disappoint, but it vastly exceeded my expectations.

Moments after watching this for the first time, I posted a quickie review as the closing credits rolled. I had a sense that it would take me some time to gather the thoughts and words needed to express my feelings about this unique piece of cinema, so I decided to take some time before writing the longer review that I typically tend to post. For most of the runtime during my first watch I kept thinking to myself that not only is this now my new favorite film, but it is also arguably one of the greatest films ever made.

Those ebullient sentiments rapidly subsided in the film's final seconds, and I walked away from the theater somewhat disappointed by how writer/director David Lowery chose to conclude this film. Wishing for irrefutable redemption for our hero Gawain (a brilliant Dev Patel), I was taken aback by the somewhat inconclusive ending. I wanted something a bit more demonstrably uplifting to occur in the final frames, what after going through such an enthralling and sometimes baffling adventure with young Gawain over the previous two hours. I wrestled with it for a while and ended up giving the film four stars, docking a full stellar symbol for what I thought was an underwhelming ending to an otherwise sublime film, and walked away feeling unsatisfied and perplexed.

A few days passed and I just couldn't shake the film. For me, a five-star rating is a big deal. It means perfection and if everything were awesome but a film couldn't stick the landing, five-stars were a bridge too far. And yet, my thoughts kept returning to the movie whenever my mind was idle over the course of the following week. One day, I painted an image of the Green Knight as he exists in my dream memory. Another day I pined to talk about it but no human with whom I was in contact had seen the damn film, leaving me alone in the world with my Green Knight musings flitting about aimlessly. Though I wanted desperately to discuss the film with someone, anyone, for some reason I wasn't ready to read about it, meaning other people's reviews on Letterbox, just yet. I wanted to keep my perspective on it fresh as I still found myself contemplating the film unconsciously. Ultimately I decided to see it again the following Friday in order to come to terms with my feelings on the flick.

Upon second viewing, I was equally beguiled by Lowery's brilliant, brilliant film, and the second time around I was afforded the breathing room to surrender a bit of the plot in exchange for an even deeper submersion into the world Lowery so masterfully creates here. This time, I came to understand just how flawed Sir Gawain is throughout just about every moment the young knight to-be appears onscreen. During my first viewing, I was so transported by Patel's towering performance that I didn't realize the extent of the young man's flaws. He had me fooled. Patel's abundant charisma and charm oddly obscures Gawain's selfishness and his repeated inability to live up to the five Knightly Virtues. During my second watch it became much more clear the extent of Gaiwan's shortcomings, and I gradually found myself viewing the ending as the natural and just consequence for a life lived as Gawain lived his.

Accepting the ending, it then dawned on me that this film just might deserve a perfect five-star rating! It was now time to gather a few witnesses, so with my younger daughter away at camp, I enlisted my wife and older daughter to go with me to the movies Saturday afternoon. My daughter had an inkling as to why the film was rated-R, so I assured her I would duck out of the theater during the offending scenes. There were two moments during which I felt the need to not to be in the same room as my daughter: the infamous stain upon the green girdle scene, and a sex scene between Gawain and Essel (Alicia Vikander) after he returns from his journey during the film's final act.

This time around, my third outing with this film over the course of 9 days, I could just relax and enjoy the film, delighting in its amazing atmospherics, its miasma of colors, its triumphant commitment to striking visual storytelling (featuring a stunning wordless fifteen minute sequence in the third act), awash in symbolic images and architecture, its entrancing music, seeming to penetrate one's every cell, and its rich and rhythmic dialogue, uttered by a pitch-perfect cast at the top of their game, who are all, resolutely, unabashedly, absolutely, and wholly down with Lowery's rather literary, yet distinctly unique take on the classic nearly thousand year-old epic poem.

This film operates on at least five prominent thematic levels simultaneously. Most obviously it is a film about a foolhardy person coming to terms with their fear, accepting the consequences of their actions, and surrendering to certain annihilation. In many ways this is the classic "Hero's Journey," though Lowery subverts this structural model to present a lead character who is much more flawed than we are accustomed to in traditional HJ fare, and whose inevitable apotheosis takes on a strikingly different form than we typically see. Gawain is operating as his "unredeemed self" all the way until the bitter end. There is no typical "Return with the Elixir" beat here, everything is compressed into literally the last shot of the film, the "Transformation" and "Atonement" occurring nearly simultaneously within the film's final seconds.

The second thematic plane upon which the film skates is that of the conflict, or the perhaps more accurately, the interplay between Christianity and Paganism. This film presents a world of the story in which magic and supernatural creatures exist, though paradoxically adjacent to practitioners and veritable crusaders of the cross. Clearly this is a world at a crossroads. The monarchy has embraced the church, emblazoning its iconography into their headgear and crowns, indicating the belief that the King, in this case Arthur, has been endowed with the divine right to rule in the name of the one God, and yet he retains Merlin, a renown sorcerer, in his employ, he freely takes the giant Green Knight as a supernatural being at face value, in opposition to the teachings of the church, Arthur's sister (and Gawain's mother), played compellingly by Sarita Choudhury, is a magick practitioner, whose occultist acts directly affect the events of the story, and even Arthur's own death takes on a magical, "Jedi Knight" quality. Although this death scene was very likely not depicted literally, it still embodied that quality of magic that is incongruous to pious Christian teachings.

Clearly both powers are at play throughout the narrative, and Lowery does a brilliant job in portraying this conflict during a montage of Gawain prepping for his journey in which priests praying over Gawain and his implements is intercut with Morgana's coven rendering their blessings upon Gawain as they fashion his infamous green girdle of invulnerability. Later, this contrast between the two worlds of Christianity and Paganism is further illustrated during the marriage of Gawain and the unnamed Princess in the final act, as her entourage wear no vestiges of the cross, and instead adorn their robes with apparently pagan pendants and accoutrements.

Lowery changed the setting from New Year's, as depicted in the poem, to Christmas in the film. I believe this was very intentional as Christmas is obviously an overtly Christian holiday, while New Year's isn't. Christmas of course occurs when it does in the calendar to correspond with the ancient pagan holiday of Yule, which is still referenced in Christmas songs and traditions surrounding the now-Christian holiday. It is no secret that the Holy Roman Empire purposefully intertwined various Christian holidays with old pagan ones to "retrofit" the foreign Christian religious practices into the pre-existing pagan seasonal rites.

Late in the film, as Gawain approaches the Green Chapel aboard a small rowboat, he meets with a decaying Celtic Cross. At first glance, it's easy to dismiss the Celtic Cross as an overtly Christian symbol, but its origins are very likely pagan in nature. The Celtic Cross differs from the traditional Christian cross in that it prominently features a perfect circle encasing stems of a cross that are very often equal in length, as opposed to the Christian cross, which stands on a longer vertical axis. Many of the old religions practiced by the indigenous Britons and Germanic peoples incorporate a circle and a cross, and the Norse god Odin's cross, is almost identical to a Celtic Cross. (In addition to Norse religion, this symbology can be found in indigenous religious traditions from all over the world).

It is said that the circle represents the life-giving sun, while the stems of the cross dissect the circle into four equal quadrants, which represent the four seasons. Again, as with Christmas, in which the Church leaders wished to "re-purpose" existing iconography and symbols, it can be argued that the Celtic Cross is not a Christian cross at all, that it predates the adoption of Christianity on the British Isles. Further, and more importantly, the Celtic Cross as depicted in the film is in fact a direct reference to the Green Knight/Green Man, whose dominion is the green earth, which is governed by the sun and by the turns of the seasons.

Thirdly, the film is a thematic exploration of the conflict between human progress, or civilization, and the natural world. It is no accident that Lowery conflates the legend of the Green Knight with that of the "Green Man," a vegetative deity that seems to have emerged from the far east and traveled to Europe no later than the fourth century AD, and perhaps much earlier. In other adaptations of the this ancient poem, the Green Knight appears more as a traditional human Knight who just happens to be colored green. Here the Knight's look is quite clearly rendered to point to the Green Man himself and it is interesting to consider that many of the Green Man artifacts still extant today depict only the Man's disembodied head, often carved into doors and columns, or depicted in stained glass, no doubt corresponding to the plot point of the tale of the Green Knight in which his head is removed from his neck by Gawain over the course of the friendly "game" that he challenges Arthur and his Knights to play with him.

Alicia Vikander, who incidentally plays two roles in the film, that of Gawain's commoner sexual partner, Essel, and the temptress "Lady" of the house Gawain visits immediately before his final approach on the Green Chapel, utters a fascinating speech as the Lady in which she makes clear to Gawain that the struggle of man versus nature will always turn in the favor of nature, despite man's many attempts to cover the green earth with buildings and other marks of civilization's progress, ultimately futile attempts to tame the unstoppable force that is the natural world. When asked by the Lady, Gawain claims that the Knight is green because he is "not of this Earth," a position that the Lady argues against rather effectively, given the Knight is the embodiment of the very essence of the natural world. It becomes clear that the Green Knight's ultimate conquest over man (as represented by Gawain) is unstoppable and inevitable.

At one point in the film, Gawain is told by Winifred (Erin Kellyman) that the Green Knight is "someone you know." Later, during what might be described as a dream sequence or an alternate reality, Gawain reaches down to his gut and finds a green mass protruding from his stomach. He tugs on the green mass and begins to extract what appears to be green living vine from his gut, seemingly a segment of a plant that could have very easily adorned the bountiful Green Knight himself. We cut away, and when we return to Gawain extracting the vine, it becomes clear that this green material is not plant life, but instead the girdle that his mother fashioned for him to grant him protection years ago before his journey to visit the Knight. This visual imagery to me is meant to demonstrate the connection between Gawain and the Knight. His guts are composed of the Green Knight, the girdle is an emblem of the Green Knight's power and sway over the natural world. Perhaps the Knight is a personification of Gawain's shadow, or maybe even more accurately, a vision of a man unencumbered by the corruption of civilization.

A fourth thematic concept that Lowery wishes to explore is the idea of this predicament of Gawain's being that of a "game." Early on, Arthur makes a point to pull Gawain aside and remind him that was is about to occur is all a game. Later, as Gawain's year of legendary status among Camelot's citizens comes to a close, Arthur visits the young man after a bloody brawl triggered by a comment made about Gawain's mother being a "witch." Arthur presses Gawain on his duty to seek out the Green Knight, as he agreed to when the terms of the Knight's "game" were read aloud to the assembled Round Table Knights.

Gawain attempts to dismiss his responsibility to appear before the Knight, reminding Arthur of the advice he provided to Gawain the previous year, that the proceedings were all "just" a game.

"Isn't this all just a game?" Gawain asks.

"Perhaps," Arthur replies, "but it is not yet complete."

This is an interesting exchange for two reasons. One, Gawain is mistaken in the belief that if something is a "game" that it doesn't has to have actual consequences in the real world. Two, Gawain thinks that his commitment to play the game is not binding because it's simply "a game." Of course the King reminds him that the "game" is not "complete," implying that driving to completion, and accepting the consequences that may await one at the finish line, are part of the "game." Incidentally, I believe Arthur's word choice is intentional and the etymology of "complete" means to "fill" or "fulfill" with "intensive force," which is It is an interesting lens through which to view the culmination of the "game" at hand.

It is important to note that the word "game" is also a word that refers to animals that are hunted for sport or food. For the animals, the fact that the word "game" applies to their plight doesn't mean that there aren't very real ramifications for playing the "game." And not just for the animals. Those hunting for food might starve and die if the "game" is not subdued. In other words, a game is not a silly plaything. Games are a microcosm of life and the outcome of a game has very real stakes.

The concept of game is carried further with Gawain's introduction to the Lord and the Lady, in which he becomes embroiled in a "game" in which he has agreed to render to the Lord whatever gift has been "given" to him while staying in the house, in exchange for the gift of whatever the Lord slays on his hunt. Gawain fails this test, as he does nearly every test placed before him, again demonstrating that games have real consequences.

It is interesting to note that during the discussion between the Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Gawain about the terms of this new game, nearby the Lady is turning over what look to be a form of Tarot cards. Obviously Tarot cards aren't "playing cards," they are instruments of "divining," of fortune-telling if you will, not playthings. That said, it is fascinating to consider that our modern day playing cards evolved from the Tarot deck. In a way, today's playing cards are just Tarot cards under a different name and a different guise, indicating that the act of merely "playing a game" in today's terms is accomplished using a tool that has its roots in an ancient, occulted practice by which the Tarot practitioner can potentially take action in the physical world to avert or alter a "destiny," or path, revealed by the card spread. In this way, playing a game is very much akin to manipulating events in the real world. Games are not what they seem, and they carry with them profound consequence.

The film is also concerned with how Gawain might have misplayed the game, especially during his initial encounter with the Green Knight. He accepts the Knight's challenge to attempt to land a blow on him "with honor," but when the Knight merely exposes his neck to Gawain and the purported melee degrades into the slaughter of an "unarmed" opponent, Gawain wrongly chooses to remove the Knight's head. The body language of Arthur, Guinevere, and Morgana clearly indicate their shock and disappointment that Gawain essentially murders the Knight in cold blood. Gawain could have very easily scratched the Knight's neck to send a message, which would have resulted in him returning to face the Knight "one year hence" to receive a similar, effectively harmless blow in return. But no. Gawain has to lop off the dude's head, with Arthur's exalted sword, Excalibur, no less, tarnishing the "honor" contained within that noble blade. Clearly Gawain was not ready for the consequences of playing the game in this way.

Finally, a fifth thematic concept that Lowery plays with here is the idea of "losing one's head." From the striking opening sequence in which a vision is depicted of Gawain seated on the throne (assuming a wholly Christlike pose, no less), as his head erupts in flames. Later, the Green Knight of course loses his head as a result of playing the game with Gawain. Along his way, Gawain encounters Winifred, a Christian Saint who lost her head as a result of a brutal attack by a visiting Lord whom she refused to wed. Gawain reluctantly retrieves her severed head for her as Lowery plays with time and space within Winifred's abode.

During Gawain's year of "preparation" before facing the Knight again, we see several graphic puppet shows, in which Gawain and the Green Knight take turns offing each other's heads. Later, in another dream vision that incorporates the final act of the film, Gawain's head is shown to be severed, falling to his feet without the cut to his neck being depicted. And obviously, the film's climax involves Gawain facing the Green Knight to ostensibly have his head removed in exchange for the blow Gawain landed on the Knight the year before.

"Losing one's head" is a figure of speech pertaining to the idea of losing one's mind, or sanity, and I believe it is no accident that this theme is repeated so often in this film. When do we "lose our minds" in real life? How often are we acting completely insane based on stories we conjure in our heads that have no connection to reality? Though the statement, "off with your head," can be taken literally to mean to lose one's head and one's life, it can also mean, "release your old ideas." In order for Gawain to change and to truly embody the Five Knightly Virtues, he must completely abandon his old ideas, his old beliefs, and his old behaviors. He needs a completely new lease on life, which can only be achieved by surrendering completely to the unstoppable force of nature that is the Green Knight.

Bottom line, The Green Knight is an endlessly fascinating, thematically dense work of cinematic art that I believe is one of the few legitimately mytho-poetic works to appear within mainstream entertainment over the last several yeas. As I watched the film, I was in disbelief that this is an "American film," as its sensibilities are decidedly "arthouse," in all the best ways. Is this an entirely accessible film? Perhaps not. Is this a movie that will connect with broad audiences? I doubt it. Many will have little patience for its very deliberate pace, or will struggle with the dialogue and its dreamlike qualities. This is by no means an action film, or even a proper fantasy adventure, at least in the way mainstream audiences might define that subgenre. I think it is marvel that this film exists at all and with it, David Lowery instantly becomes one of my favorite filmmakers and is without a doubt one of the most exciting voices working in contemporary cinema today. Highly recommend!


MaximusSol liked these reviews