Updated: Feb 3, 2022
Initiated in the dark, from the voice of an unearthly woman, there begins a whispered invocation, a tale of some king who drew a sword from stone. A slow, deliberate tilt from the vaulted ceiling of a castle’s kingly chamber gradually brings into frame a man, adorned in his golden robes, seated on his solitary throne. A staff in hand, his crown hovers above him, guided by a heavenly beam of light that bathes him from the window overhead. As the crown lowers onto his head, the camera draws nearer. The whisper turns into a growl. “This is not that king,” rasps the woman. “Nor is it his song.” The man erupts into flames.
As the camera tilts away from this image — this surreal, unforgettable image of a man on fire — up to the night sky above, so tilts the story from the throne upon which he sits, up to something much more abstract and infinite. This is not the story of a king; it is a new tale, a tale of adventure, brave and bold,
“forever set, in heart, in stone, like all great myths of old.”
So begins The Green Knight, a film that, in every single way, seems to live up to its utterly stupefying preface. Like the anonymously written, 14th-century-era source material, it is a densely knotted work. In every moment, it feels like there’s so much to unwind from the tangled threads that director David Lowery strings together, and the film is filled to the brim with the symbolism and allegory that made Sir Gawain and The Green Knight such a staple in English classrooms.
Maybe, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, a film like The Green Knight would land with a thud, far too self-indulgent and impenetrable to offer any lasting impact. Fortunately, Lowery’s genuinely outstanding direction gives the Gawain Poet’s tale the room it needs to breathe, transforming the work into something that’s less of a rousing quest, and more of a gentle, deliberate tone poem, rich with meaning but with a featherlight touch. In Lowery’s hands, Sir Gawain’s tale is transformed into an epic reinvention, a lengthy meditation that touches on heroism, masculinity, faith, temptation, and perhaps most importantly, death.
It is the looming specter of death that haunts The Green Knight to the very end, something that feels especially apt coming from the director of A Ghost Story, another deeply heady film waxing poetic upon the nature of mortality. And, though there aren’t any silly-looking, sheet-covered specters here, there’s still no shortage of otherworldly figures orbiting Sir Gawain — from the Lady of the Lake whose skull he restores, to the fox that serves as his guide and companion — en route to his fateful meeting with the mythical knight he beheaded a year earlier.
Crucially, Gawain’s journey in The Green Knight is never really told as a tale of adventure. Instead, Lowery displays it more as a series of vignettes, threaded together into a tapestry that often blurs the lines between the corporeal and the spectral until there’s effectively no distinction to be made. At turns, the creases of time that color Gawain’s arduous journey to the Green Knight’s castle seem to fold in on themselves, like when he’s robbed blind soon after he sets upon his quest, only to have his possessions — the Green Knight’s mighty axe, a charmed belt — returned to him through circumstances akin to kismet. The ideas of fate play heavily in Gawain’s journey, a fate of greatness assigned to a man who’s very clearly uncertain of his preparedness to live up to it.
It’s hard to capture the subtleties of a character like Gawain, especially in a film like this one that demands a certain ambiguity in his enthusiasm for the cross he’s signed himself up to bear, but to watch Dev Patel here is astounding. Patel has always been magnetic, roguishly handsome with eyes that are far more emotive than they let on, but to see him in The Green Knight feels like a revelation. This is one of his finest performances to date, and I don’t say that lightly. He is the emotional fulcrum of the film, and he embodies Gawain’s path to his fate in a manner that oscillates between uncertainty and determination, between his mortality and immortality, in all the right ways, grounding the metaphysical nature of the film with his presence.
So often throughout the film, the scruffy, almost shambling Patel acts as a focal point for Lowery’s camera, offering a juxtaposition to some of the director’s most visually sumptuous cinematography to date. With a production set in the vast rolling hills of Ireland, The Green Knight transforms its medieval setting into something genuinely entrancing, filled with staggering landscape work, full-circle camera pans, and majestic crane shots. Lowery’s direction really shines here, and the starkly beautiful vision he brings makes Sir Gawain’s epic journey all the more enthralling to watch unfold.
But of course, as the great myth states, every journey must come to an end.
End the film does, with its most utterly, unabashedly captivating act, a closing 20-minute sequence that — at the risk of sounding like a cheap cop-out — genuinely leaves me speechless. It is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, distilling the odyssey preceding it into a vision that feels so immense, so stark, so bleak and so jarringly vivid all at once. The final act of The Green Knight is absolutely mesmerizing, presenting a jaded and cynical life played out in slow motion, a glorious fate left unredeemed and abandoned, a long and miserable decay that corrodes from the inside in the most devastating ways. In a film as utterly hypnotic and absolutely magical as this one, it’s only right that it concludes with its most powerful spell.