The Unspoken Beauty Behind ‘The Green Knight’

“One.. Year.. Hence”

These are the words bellowed out by the towering, emerald, Green Knight at the beginning of the film. The words linger in the air and through the halls as a fatalistic promise. There is something almost poetic about David Lowery’s ‘The Green Knight’ being pushed 427 days off of its original release date. It’s almost as though we also had to take a year-long journey of our own in order to see this film.

While certain aspects of this film’s aesthetic or story may feel safe or familiar from a distance, the closer you peer through the Old English and Arthurian setting of The Green Knight, the more clear it is that writer, director, and producer David Lowery is crafting a special take on a classic fable.

For those who are familiar with Lowery’s work, this should come as no surprise. One of the greatest strengths that Lowery has displayed in his filmmaking career so far is in his ability to take a childish-tale or piece of imagery (ex: ghost portrayed as a sheet with round black holes for eyes), and make something that feels dramatically poignant. Where The Green Knight excels beyond his other works is in its balance between thematic weight and the ability to have fun and fully take advantage of the fantastical medieval backdrop in which the story takes place.

Even critics of this film would be hard-pressed to diminish any of the craft that is on display in this Middle Age epic. The A24 release has only an estimated $15 million budget, but it looks better than just about every $200+ million blockbuster (quality over quantity people). Some of the shots and sequences in this movie left me more awe-struck than any film in recent memory. The score, composed by Lowery’s longtime sonic partner Daniel Hart, strikes a balletic balance between medieval strings and assaulting synths, creating a disorienting harmony that perfectly matches Lowery’s direction.

A Patient Pace

Not since Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017) has a film benefited so much from its director’s hyper-patient, Tarkovsky-esque, long takes that leave you in a sense of hypnosis. In A Ghost Story, these extended sequences provided a fly-on-the-wall, observant quality to the filmmaking, as though you were a ghost who simply had to watch on as the world you once knew slowly changed around you. In The Green Knight these long takes create a dizzying, hypnotic condition that keeps moviegoers puzzling over what they are watching and if any of it is real.

Certain long takes in ‘The Green Knight’ are reminiscent of something one would find in Andrei Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ (1979). 

The confusing (and at times contradicting) nature of this story is, of course, intentional, as it perfectly mimics the way that the same old classic tale can be told and retold and slowly changed over time. “Don’t tell anyone… but sometimes I make changes to where I see room for improvement” is a line that is uttered by a Lady (Alicia Vikander) whom Sir Gaiwan (Dev Patel) comes across along his journey. The source text, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has gone through dozens of interpretations in the centuries since it was originally written. Lowery takes all of these various interpretations (or “improvements” depending on who you ask) and, instead of only portraying one of them, he shows you all of them, layered on top of each other.

Where this kind of storytelling might act as a huge turn-off for many viewers, I found it invigorating. It is similar to how you may feel when you hear a friend or family member tell the same story hundreds of times. These changes, whether conscious or unconscious, are typically done to highlight a certain detail that may be more applicable, or serve a larger narrative purpose, for one audience over another. However, if you keep telling the story long enough and with enough morphing or exaggeration of details, the truth can slowly become blurred to the point in which the tale itself may begin to change into something entirely new.

A Quest For Honor

Regardless of how hazy some of the details can become in following Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel, the overall theme of the film is fairly clear. David Lowery uses this idea of a self righteous quest to investigate the very classical ideal of what it means to be “honorable.” If one lives a very dishonorable life, one in which one consistently only looks out for the betterment of themselves over that of others, but completes one “Noble Quest”, does that automatically make them an honorable person? That is one of the central questions that Lowery is seeking to investigate and he even poses this question directly to Gawain through the Lord (Joel Edgerton) character. By the logic of every classic fable, it may appear to be a resounding “yes”, but Lowery refuses to offer anything as simple as a “yes” or a “no” to such an abstract idea as honor. 

‘The Green Knight’ dir. David Lowery, courtesy of A24

I would be remiss to not at least acknowledge the incredible work done by Dev Patel in this film. While Patel has become, in my eyes, one of the sexiest men on the planet, he still possesses an almost boyish set of doughy eyes that is perfectly suited for this role. He expertly flips back and forth between James Bond-level charisma and looks, and a near childlike sense of fear. This story is as much about Gawain learning how to become an adult as it is about him learning how to become a knight, and Patel knows exactly how to find that middle ground.

It was interesting sitting in the theater before this film started and seeing the trailer for Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel (a movie that I am looking forward to by the way). On their surface, the two may appear to be cut from the same cloth. After all, both of them are Arthurian tales based on text written during the 14th century. However, as I saw the trailer play before my second theatrical viewing of this film, I couldn’t help but feel just a little bit more indifferent towards the trailer than I did the first time that I saw it. The washed out European pastiche that Scott is drawing from may mimic the backdrop of a large chunk of The Green Knight, but somehow I doubt that The Last Duel will come close to matching the emotional and thematic intelligence that I found to be oozing from nearly every frame of David Lowery’s latest masterpiece. 

– Hunter Mobley

‘The Green Knight’ dir. David Lowery, courtesy of A24. Now playing in theaters.

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