The journey to find the Green Knight places this story alongside Homeric epics with plenty of stops and encounters along the road. Gawain runs into a scavenger played with mischievous glee by Barry Keoghan, the ghost of a martyred saint played by Erin Kellyman, and the aforementioned giants and talking fox (voiced, apparently, by Patrick Duffy??). These, plus a long sequence at the castle of a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and his Lady (Vikander, in a dual role), all conspire to show Gawain as out of his depth. He's constantly disarmed and disabled and seduced and confused, by both the powerful and powerless. The scavengers are able to take advantage of him and so is the Lady. In the early scenes at court, Gawain’s witchy mother (Sarita Choudhury) wants her son to be productive, to the point that it’s heavily intimated that she and her coven are the animating forces behind the Green Knight himself. The problem for Gawain is that productivity is so narrow for a person of his class, and he’s incapable of fulfilling the qualities of chivalry and bravery that are the only ways for someone to like him to be productive. Losing himself in alcohol and sex is a way to dull his shame at being less than, but that shame is also what sends him on this mission in the first place. Outside the walls, the wider world is full of people who haven’t lucked into Gawain’s charmed life and know how to do things, compared to Gawain who knows little more than a stunning hair regimen and how to look great on a horse.
What most people know about King Arthur’s court is the concept of chivalry, loosely defined in this film as the strong dedicating themselves in service to the weak. That’s the mechanism by which Arthur rewards his knights, and he can do so because all power flows from him. However, if power/strength flows down from the top and the use of power/strength is the greatest civic trait, then people further down the pyramid like Essel and Keoghan’s unnamed scavenger are only people to be acted upon. Chivalry is a doily draped on top of strict class structures, something pretty on top of something ugly. The closer one is to Arthur, the more the illusion can be maintained. When Gawain leaves the castle, the film refuses to give him the kind of moral lessons that he thinks he’s going to get. He loses his gear at the hands of the scavengers, standing over him as he’s tied up and gagged. Whatever the opposite of chivalry is, it’s embodied by people looting the dead on the battlefield, but here they stand with the power of life and death over Arthur’s own nephew. Gawain twice recovers his gear, once for doing a good deed, and again for sinning. Arthur’s knights claim to live by a code, but what kind of code is that?
One of the first conversations in The Green Knight takes place between Essel and Gawain. The former has a pretty strong sense of what the rest of her life is going to be like, and it’s not one that includes the kind of greatness that Gawain admires in his withering uncle. She asks him ‘why be great when you can be good?’ That’s the diamond-hard crux of the film, and it echoes over the rest of what happens. Lowery has not made a swashbuckling romp, but an anti-climactic farce. It has to be that because this whole journey is a joke instigated by a dare. Gawain’s life with Essel is good, and a thing that could develop into a modest and happy life together, but he’s trapped in his gilded cage by his birth and that life becomes impossible. Instead, his need to justify the cage sends him into the forest, and a brilliant ending sends him to an even worse place. Throughout, Gawain references what a knight is supposed to do, when what he wants to do is be back with Essel and his mother, where he was happiest. The Green Knight, among many things, is a tragedy in how its thoroughly average protagonist cannot imagine his life on his own terms.
Lowery’s scripts have never done much for me til now, when he’s produced one of 2021’s very best. What has always worked in his films has been the spare and delicate cinematography. He often films in wide-shot nature, and The Green Knight provides plenty of opportunities for that. DP Andrew Droz Palermo takes his time with frames and shots, letting characters start from far off and move closer while the viewer takes in the quiet surroundings. Away from nature, Lowery frequently goes surreal with prophetic visions and evocative nightmares. The Green Knight speaks through a possessed Guinevere (Kate Dickey), taking on a demonic cadence that’s as powerful as Ineson’s normal speaking voice. There’s often a question of what’s real and what isn’t, often involving the many times on Gawain’s quest that he’s in mortal danger. Lowery uses every trick he can muster to keep the viewer on their toes, but it never feels overdirected or showy. With the breadth of the setting and the story, The Green Knight provides Lowery with all the room he needs to go wild.
After two leading roles overshadowed by the pandemic in this and Personal History of David Copperfield, one hopes that Patel hasn’t missed an opportunity. This should be a performance that catapults him into the mainstream. By turns playful and sexy and vulnerable and stoic, Patel is onscreen for the vast majority of the film and anchors every second of screentime, even when he’s sharing the screen with other highly capable actors. Keoghan is frequently a can’t-look-away presence, and his theatrical and intentionally disarming shtick as the scavenger adds another killer credit to his impressive career. Vikander is intensely appealing as Essel, as she must be to make Gawain look even more like a fool for leaving her, and then later as the Lady, she again impresses with a concentrated fatalism. Harris and Dickey project a kindly air, but it’s recognizable as that of successful relatives who are gently judging those who haven’t reached their status. The nature of Gawain’s journey is that people keep popping up and vanishing from the story, and Lowery’s taken care to ensure that each new encounter doesn’t turn into a lull.
The Green Knight is a stunning feature that has turned me into a Lowery acolyte. The achievement here is such that I don’t need further confirmation from whatever comes next. I’m completely sold and ready to overlook earlier turgid films about the slow passage of time. That theme keeps coming up for Lowery, though never with this much clarity and evocation. Multiple Lowery characters have talked about the smallness of human existence, even for those who are able to accomplish the most. Everything fades away, overtaken by nature and green. That might be a grounding idea for Lowery, but he’s making things that argue the opposite. The Green Knight will fade away, too, but it’ll take a little longer than most things. A