Review: The Green Knight

By Christian DiMartino

David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a sensational, gorgeous fever-dream of a movie; the work of a bold, creative visionary that only comes around every once in a blue (or, we can say “green” for this case)moon. Here is a film that not everyone will respond to, yet it’s the kind of work that I respond to- it’s a bizarre visual feast, but the kind of film that is so grand, anyone with an affection for cinema wouldn’t dare miss it. Even getting up to use the restroom will be at your own peril (I probably missed about a minute of it, compliments of a Diet Pepsi, and oh, the regret).

In terms of the source material, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, my knowledge of it is only slight. I took an ancient literature course in college, and this one of the stories that we “read.” I didn’t read it, because nobody can make me read, but needless to say, the course made me so miserable that I dropped out after the midterm. But yeah, anyways, I pretty much knew the gist of the story, or at least, the beginning, but watching The Green Knight was mostly a fresh experience- not just because of my unfamiliarity, but also because there really isn’t much like this. Said class also huffed and puffed about how awful Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf was (cough, I like it), and something tells me that those snobs will gripe about this film too, particularly in a sequence featuring Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander. But to hell with them- with this film, Lowery is very much doing his own thing, while sticking true to the spirit of the source material, and it’s just fabulous.

So the film follows one Gawain (Dev Patel, carrying most of the film on his shoulders quite well), a handsome knight who spends his days being faithful to the King (Sean Harris), who is also his uncle, and to his love, Essel (Vikander, who in a strange bit of casting plays another role deeper into the story). On Christmas Day, all of the knights are enjoying themselves when their party is interrupted by an eerie, creepy Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, whose voice is chilling in itself) who rides in on a horse and proposes a “Christmas Game”: The game being, the bravest knight must strike the Green Knight with his sword, and if it doesn’t kill him, then said brave knight must travel to find the Green Knight, where the strike will be returned unto them next Christmas. Obviously, nobody is clamoring for this opportunity. Yet Gawain agrees to do it, and thus, he strikes his sword and chops off the head of the Green Knight.

Fa la la la la?

BUT… in a moment that is purely chilling, the Green Knight picks his head back up, and gallops back to where he came from. A year passes by, and not knowing what truly lies ahead, in terms of his fate, Gawain decides to go on the quest to find the Green Knight, and finish the Christmas Game. The vast majority of the film revolves around his journey to him, which is more like an odyssey. If you’re unaware of what happens during this odyssey, well, I’ll just let the film do the talking.

Perhaps this isn’t a fair assumption, but I get the sense that not everyone will go for The Green Knight. It’s not because of whatever liberties Lowery takes with the material, but rather, people expecting this to be an action extravaganza have come to the wrong place. The film held me in its gorgeous grip for the entirety of its two hour runtime, but it might not hold everyone, and part of it is because Lowery has taken on a Terrence Malick-style of filmmaking here. There are people who are on board with this, and there are those who find it maddeningly pretentious. I’m on board with it, because frankly, just about every shot in The Green Knight gives us something to savor. The cinematography from Andrew Droz Palermo is a wonder. Whether he’s using natural light or different color schemes, there is never a dull moment here- I knew about five minutes in that I couldn’t wait to own the Blu-ray.

Lowery transports us back to a time and place that is so convincing, so authentic, that it wouldn’t surprise me if time travel existed. The production values in this film are not just first-rate, but Oscar worthy. Yet what of the movie? Well, if the rating is any indicator, the film worked for me. Lowery’s screenplay is impressive, in that he manages to perfectly capture the dialect of the time, and the actors he has hired to deliver it deliver it beautifully. Yet when discussing a movie like The Green Knight, it’s probably best to just discuss the film as an experience, and what an experience this is.

The film was scheduled to be released last year, but with Covid and all, A24 decided to hold off on it. With good reason too: this is a film best suited for the big screen. Some may complain about the story, but there is no complaint from me, in that Lowery is simply adapting ancient literature for the screen, and he’s done a marvelous job of it. The Green Knight is a hypnotic experience, one that dazzles the eye, enchants the brain, and lingers in the mind. It also, more or less, had me questioning if our popcorn was laced. This is, indeed, a rather strange experience, yet from beginning to end, it’s a beautiful one. Particularly the final sequence, where you could probably hear a pin drop.

Lowery’s work is typically grounded in reality, and in the mystical, and in some ways, that’s what The Green Knight achieves. I enjoyed his remake of Pete’s Dragon, and was charmed by the Robert Redford vehicle, The Old Man and the Gun. Yet the Lowery film that everyone seems to swoon for, A Ghost Story, is one that irked me (but a trip back to it would probably do me some good). There isn’t a thing I would change about The Green Knight though; it’s a masterclass of filmmaking, and a crowning achievement. The kind of experience where, if it’s “your thing,” you not only have an itch to see it immediately afterwards, but you also feel the urge to tell others around you to stop what they’re doing and see it. We complain about a lack of freshness in the movies these days, and well, here it is.

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