The Green Knight and all the images you see in this review are owned by A24
Directed by David Lowery
The first trailer for this movie dropped in February of 2020 which was mere weeks before the world pretty much came to an end and movies were either shelved or released on streaming services for exorbitant prices. I was definitely interested in seeing it as I had a vague understanding of what The Green Knight story was and seeing it realized on the big screen with such interesting visuals and an AWESOME looking design for the titular knight seemed like a slam dunk to me! I was ready to open a spot for it on my top ten list of 2020 based on the trailer alone, but we all know what happened next, and much like Sir Gawain himself we all had to wait one year to see how it all worked out. Was it worth holding out until we could return to theaters to release it, or was it would it have been a better idea to just toss it onto HBO Max and hope that everyone forgets it before the studio puts out their next movie? Let’s find out!!
In the time of legends and poor hygiene, a young knight name Gawain (Dev Patel) was going about his life without much knighting to speak of. Sure he had the title, but he spent most of his days waiting for glory and honor to come to him rather than seek it out himself. Fortunately for him, opportunity presents itself at the King’s Christmas party where a mysterious green Knight offers anyone there a simple challenge! Strike him once however they wish, on the condition that in one year’s time they will take the same blow from the Green Knight. Feeling plucky and looking to prove himself, Gawain takes up the challenge and with one swift strike, chops the Green Knight’s head off! Well so much for taking a blow next year, am I right? Well… it looks like this will still come to pass as the Green Knight casually picks up his head and rides off into the night! I mean it’s KINDA on Gawain to not assume some magical shenanigans were at play, but still; he has one year to make up his mind as to whether he will got to face the Green Knight at his chapel and go through with this game despite him being PRETTY sure that his own head is not so easily reattached. Gawain seems to be willing to face his fate as he mounts a horse and starts his journey, but things are not as straightforward as they seem; not with the path ahead of him or the convictions in his own mind. Will Gawain preserve his honor and face the Green Knight’s blade despite how unfair this all seems? What challenges will he face along the way, and are they enough to make him waiver in his convictions? Seriously, WHY DOES THIS GUY LOOK SO COOL!? Maybe that’s how he gets people to fall for this; he just charms them with his rugged good looks!
I have reviewed my fair share of A24 films over the years, and while this may not be the BEST one they’ve produced, it’s certainly a beautiful spectacle with some great ideas in its head that manages to be entertaining if a bit inscrutable. The movie isn’t vague as the narrative is a pretty straightforward adventure story complete with dastardly thieves, unexpected creatures, and out of nowhere asides to keep things from feeling to straightforward, but the fact is that the movie isn’t here to hold your hand as it bounces from one “really makes you think” moment to the next. When the movie was gearing up to come out I ended up watching a YouTube video about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to fill in the blanks on my vague understanding of the story which I kind of recommend doing if you don’t know it already; first, because this isn’t a straightforward retelling so the dreaded SPOILERS aren’t so much a factor here, but more importantly because I think I got more out of it knowing what the story was about and (more importantly) how it was going about telling that story. Going in without ANY context might leave things a bit TOO confusing as it throws you far into the deep end of its world and themes without any real moments to stop and catch your breath, but even then I can’t imagine that the imagery, the acting, and just the way that individual scenes play out in isolation won’t grab you in SOME way as this is the kind of beautifully realized artistry that’s a good counterbalance to the more action heavy spectacles we’ve been getting since theaters opened up. Sure everyone was waiting to see the next Fast and Furious movie including myself, but there are other kinds of movies that were absent in 2020 as well, and I think this fits the bill for that quite nicely; even if it’s ambitions fell a bit short of my expectations.
The most striking thing about the movie are its visuals which paint a world that’s as dark as dismal as a midlevel story should be, but also one of wonder and beauty that similarly complements the smallness of life and the mystery as to what was outside of your village; where the entire globe hadn’t been mapped out yet only to find a serious lack of dragons and no Holy Grail. It’s a world that doesn’t always make sense but always has something enticing to show you as Gawain treks across this unfamiliar land that’s as confused by him as he is by it, and it’s realized through a very grounded aesthetic that makes it all as foreboding as it is exciting. This is all mostly in the second and third acts however as the aesthetic doesn’t work quite as well in the first act as the natural lighting and muted colors makes everything feel much more dull than I was hoping for. A deliberate choice perhaps as it provides a contrast to what Gawain experiences on his harrowing journey, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a more depressing looking party than the one at the start of the movie!
The real star of the movie though is not its cinematography, its bizarre imagery, or the amusing asides it goes on whenever Gawain is getting too comfortable. The anchor that holds this movie together is Dev Patel who’s being asked to do A LOT with a rather sparse script, and manages to knock it out of the park. Sure, he’s being helped up a LITTLE bit by strong imagery that gets across his emotional state as well as his face does, but the dude is being put through the wringer throughout and he’s basically being forced to go through a dozen or so crises (both physical and emotional) on what is a rather intense story arc. I can’t say I one hundred percent agree with the movie’s conclusion, but Dev Patel does such a great job taking us through it that it still makes sense for him by the end of it. All the other actors in here are fine with some working better than others. Some characters like the King are just kinda there to say their lines while others like a woman he meets in the second half brings a lot of personality for Patel to bounce off of. And of course The Green Knight is awesome played here by Ralph Ineson who has one of the most wonderfully gravely voices out there and he brings a lot of inscrutable weariness to the character that makes you constantly unsure of how much of a threat he truly is. Still, it’s Patel’s movie through and through and without him there’s a lot of this that simply wouldn’t have worked; especially when it REALLY gets out there with some of its ideas!
What’s probably the biggest sticking point for me though is the ending which I will do my best not to spoil, but we will be veering in that direction going forward so skip ahead if you want to go in without any hints as to what might happen.
We good? Alright, so if you know how the story ends, the movie is not “ruined” for you as it does take some liberties here and there. Whether it ends up where the original ultimately ends up is something I won’t spoil here, but what I do want to point out is that the movie seems to try and have its cake and eat it as far as adaptation. There are parts of this that are not just note for note what happened in the story, but things you couldn’t POSSIBLY understand (at least in a full context) if you don’t know the story itself. Despite that however, the movie’s ending doesn’t “connect the dots” the way that the original does, and so the ending feels like a lot of threads are left unresolved. If you wanted to know what the deal was with the couple in the second half of the movie, well go read the story or watch a YouTube video on it because it’s not explained here. The mysterious women at the start of the film that are intercut with the Christmas party? I know who that’s supposed to be, but the movie isn’t going to tell you! I wouldn’t go so far as to say this movie is pretentious, but with its caginess about certain plot points and the way it decides to end, it does feel incomplete in spots that undercut the message of the story rather than provide it more weight and meaning.
For me, the movie is lacking in some key areas to make it a modern day masterpiece. It’s mysterious and it will take you directions you don’t expect, but the tradeoff for that is a movie that still feels at arms-length; where the beauty and majesty of everything lacks a degree of humanity to it as it prefers to stay contemplative rather than gratifying. However, the acting from Dev Patel does breathe a wide range of emotions into the story which keeps it from feeling COMPLETELY cold and frankly his sheer earnestness throughout is what allows the rest of the movie to go off in every direction without losing itself completely in its own ideas. It’s an easy recommendation from me, provided you have the patience for a movie this densely layered, but when Dev Patel is putting in a performance this good he can read a phone book and keep it captivating!