The Green Knight is the first film I saw in a theatre in a year and and a half, so perhaps I was susceptible to its charms. Even so, it had me early, and completely. The first scene tells us the kind of film this won’t be. We see a figure in yellow robes sitting on a throne in semi-darkness. The voiceover hisses, “none had renown the boy who pulled sword from stone”—the legend of King Arthur. It continues: “But this is not that king, nor is this his song”. As these words are spoken, the man’s face bursts into flames.
Arthur is present in The Green Knight, but the film is not what you would consider Arthurian. The broad genre of the medieval drama—everything from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to Game of Thrones—has recognizable rhythms, at once stately and savage. American director David Lowery messes with these expectations from the start. Our first real glimpse of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is when he awakes in a brothel. He lurches happily though it in a series of quick travelling shots; another set of shots has him bound for the castle on his horse. The music is skittery; hardly Renaissance fair. We see split-second images of “Sir Gawain and the…” written in four different fonts. There’s a cut and the tolling of bells stops. It feels entirely modern.
Lowery's film is based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th century poem about a would-be knight’s adventures (though they're mostly misadventures). It’s a unique offering: seductive, elliptical, trippy. Gawain is a medieval slacker content to laze around with his lover, Elles (Alicia Vikander), get drunk and attend the court of his uncle, Arthur, without contributing much. Then one day a knight with the body of a man and a face like the trunk of a tree rides into court. He issues a challenge: he’s willing to be killed here and now, but whoever slays him will have to meet him a year hence and face a similar blow. Unsurprisingly, there are no takers—but then Gawain accepts. He decapitates the Green Knight, who picks up his head and leaves.
Gawain’s fame grows: drunks accost him in bars, we see a grisly puppet reenactment of the beheading. But it’s an uneasy celebrity, for everyone knows he’ll be headed to likely meet his own death (a second glimpse of the puppets shows Gawain being beheaded). Soon, it’s time to leave. This should be the start of the hero's journey—and Gawain’s demeanor as he trots away from the village suggests he thinks of himself as such. But almost immediately, things start to go south, as a group of scavengers (led by a maniacal Barry Keoghan) overpower him, take his horse and leave him trussed up. Not a good look on someone yearning for knighthood.
Like Robert Eggers did in The Witch, Lowery applies the tones and techniques of horror to a period film. Along with severed heads and skeletons, you get the quick, unsettling editing of modern horror. Andrew Droz Palermo's unchained camera seems to glide through scenes, heightening the impression that anyone we’re seeing could be a spirit. It’s an acid historical fantasy, and Lowery leans into the trippiness, bathing scenes in jaundiced yellow and bloody crimson, introducing giants and talking foxes. It’s a step up for the director in scale, but not a departure from his idiosyncratic style; in A24, he might have found the right studio to partner with for this kind of film.
Gawain’s adventures on his way to the Green Knight are twisted tests of honour and chivalry (Vikander turns up again, and Joel Edgerton, both clearly enjoying themselves). The imports of the tests is ambiguous, and Patel’s performance is smartly pitched between determination, hesitation and confusion. Nothing is made of his Indian ancestry, beyond Sarita Choudhury being cast as his mother. This is the first film to capitalize on the actor becoming an object of thirst after Lion—he’s lit and filmed lovingly, and looks surprisingly good in chain mail.
Lowery’s genre subversions are aided by a fantastic score by Daniel Hart. There’s a certain sound that’s popular for films like these—dark strings-based themes with traditional instruments and song or two thrown in. Old English melodies form the base of Hart’s work here, but he pushes that familiar sound—just as the film pushes its hero’s journey—into weirder territory: disembodied choral singing, demonic strings, eerie celeste.
Historical fantasy is a lucrative genre, and The Green Knight could have done any number of things to make itself accessible and franchise-worthy. Instead, it offers us something vivid and unsettling. Seeing it in a theatre was a reminder that it's unique visions, not expensive productions, that make for the best big-screen experiences.
The Green Knight is in theatres.