Green Knight doorway

The Green Knight

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century epic poem about a young knight who engages in a “beheading game” with a mysterious giant who interrupts King Arthur’s Christmas banquet. This indelible tale of chivalrous quests and courtly customs has been translated and adapted too many times to count in the intervening eight hundred years. The latest—unless there’s a graphic novel out there I don’t know about; there probably is—is David Lowery’s The Green Knight starring Dev Patel as the noble lad whose name has been lopped off the tale’s title in this iteration. It’s the old tale told rather straight with a gothic sensibility, meaning there are no contemporary action theatrics to see here, just weird fantasy stuff of the kind even Guillermo del Toro hasn’t burrowed into since he made Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006.

Your enjoyment of The Green Knight will depend entirely on how comfortable you are with symbol, metaphor, and mood being the main characteristics of a movie. This is high fantasy in the classical tradition, so most characters are stand-ins for their types, and the plot is a series of situations rather than a cause and effect plot. The first half hour feels a bit more conventional, but once Gawain sets off on his quest, the pacing shifts abruptly. Lowery, who also edited the film, and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo choose to just rest on Patel as he rides away from Camelot in a single long tracking shot. I welcomed the tempo change, because this expansive pacing was the vibe I came for. I wanted to sink into another world.

Central to all medieval tales is a tension between the wildness of the pagan world and the civilizing influence of Christianity. Arthur is a Davidic character, Merlin his Samuel, and the realm they usher in is the Christian kingdom still ostensibly in flux today. It is an always-interesting wrinkle that knights-to-be must venture out into the pagan realm to test their character before coming back into the Christian halls to lead as just and moral men. It’s not a matter of simply destroying the pagan or sinful impulse, something Gawain learns very quickly. Rather, that which is Other is like a door that must be passed through in order to live free on the other side. It’s akin to the dynamic of confession and absolution and all of the reckoning with ambiguity and embrace of true faith that is essential to true repentance and redemption. Lowery’s take on Gawain is true the character of this mythic form.

What is interesting—besides the lush visuals, compelling performance from Patel, and ethereal turns the story takes; really that all would have been enough for me—are what Lowery decides to stress as key factors in Gawain’s odyssey. He leans into the sexual elements of the myth and salts them with the Oedipal, giving them a complexity that is both intriguing and, at times, distracting. It’s a bit too definite for me, but hey it’s not my movie. It’s Lowery’s, and I can go read the original, feral poem anytime I want. Lowery’s choices are expertly executed. It’s always engrossing.

So unlike true myths, you can’t really make of it what you will. You have to deal with Lowery’s interpretation. That’s as likely to turn off some viewers as the pacing is. I liked it. I don’t mind a pointed tale when its this sharply told.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a 14th century epic poem about a young knight who engages in a “beheading game” with a mysterious giant who interrupts King Arthur’s Christmas banquet. This indelible tale of chivalrous quests and courtly customs has been translated and adapted too many times to count in the intervening eight hundred years. The latest—unless there’s a graphic novel out there I don’t know about; there probably is—is David Lowery’s The Green Knight starring Dev Patel as the noble lad whose name has been lopped off the tale’s title in this iteration. It’s the old tale told rather straight with a gothic sensibility, meaning there are no contemporary action theatrics to see here, just weird fantasy stuff of the kind even Guillermo del Toro hasn’t burrowed into since he made Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006.

Your enjoyment of The Green Knight will depend entirely on how comfortable you are with symbol, metaphor, and mood being the main characteristics of a movie. This is high fantasy in the classical tradition, so most characters are stand-ins for their types, and the plot is a series of situations rather than a cause and effect plot. The first half hour feels a bit more conventional, but once Gawain sets off on his quest, the pacing shifts abruptly. Lowery, who also edited the film, and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo choose to just rest on Patel as he rides away from Camelot in a single long tracking shot. I welcomed the tempo change, because this expansive pacing was the vibe I came for. I wanted to sink into another world.

Central to all medieval tales is a tension between the wildness of the pagan world and the civilizing influence of Christianity. Arthur is a Davidic character, Merlin his Samuel, and the realm they usher in is the Christian kingdom still ostensibly in flux today. It is an always-interesting wrinkle that knights-to-be must venture out into the pagan realm to test their character before coming back into the Christian halls to lead as just and moral men. It’s not a matter of simply destroying the pagan or sinful impulse, something Gawain learns very quickly. Rather, that which is Other is like a door that must be passed through in order to live free on the other side. It’s akin to the dynamic of confession and absolution and all of the reckoning with ambiguity and embrace of true faith that is essential to true repentance and redemption. Lowery’s take on Gawain is true the character of this mythic form.

What is interesting—besides the lush visuals, compelling performance from Patel, and ethereal turns the story takes; really that all would have been enough for me—are what Lowery decides to stress as key factors in Gawain’s odyssey. He leans into the sexual elements of the myth and salts them with the Oedipal, giving them a complexity that is both intriguing and, at times, distracting. It’s a bit too definite for me, but hey it’s not my movie. It’s Lowery’s, and I can go read the original, feral poem anytime I want. Lowery’s choices are expertly executed. It’s always engrossing.

So unlike true myths, you can’t really make of it what you will. You have to deal with Lowery’s interpretation. That’s as likely to turn off some viewers as the pacing is. I liked it. I don’t mind a pointed tale when its this sharply told.

the green knight poster
Portrait of Fuller Seminary alum Elijah Davidson

Elijah Davidson is Co-Director of Brehm Film and Senior Film Critic. Find more of his work at elijahdavidson.com.

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