Noble pursuit: ‘GREEN KNIGHT’ holds a mighty thematic sword, slashes through narrative conventions

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

THE GREEN KNIGHT

Rated R, 130 minutes.
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Joel Edgerton and Ralph Ineson

What is life if you don’t have a story to tell? Our existence, by its very nature, is a struggle — a quest to find truth and connection, filled with ups and downs and more conflict than we’d care to admit. What would life truly be if we weren’t overcoming obstacles both inside and out, searching for identity, purpose and recognition?

Dallas filmmaker David Lowery’s latest meditative experience, The Green Knight, released by A24, wrestles with these thoughts and illustrates them with a stunning vision. It’s a bold, unsettling and seductively weird spin on the Arthurian legend “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”—which follows Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), King Arthur’s nephew, as he journeys to confront the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a gigantic tree-like creature and spiritual judge of men.

Co-starring Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris and Kate Dickie, The Green Knight is not your normal cup of medieval tea. While it may feature incredible giants, spirits and a talking fox, the film doesn’t lean into typical, easy-to-digest period storytelling. Lowery (A Ghost StoryThe Old Man & the Gun) is a filmmaker that often manipulates conventions, quietly twisting things in a fashion that evokes feelings similar to the work of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. (Watch 1979’s Stalker, and you’ll see what I mean.) Rather than take the shape of a blockbuster caked in battle sequences and standard movie heroics, why not explore cowardice and have audiences looking inward with a mythic morality tale?

One early scene sees Harris’ King Arthur asking his nephew to accompany him and his queen (Dickie) during a Christmas gathering. Sir Gawain, baffled by this request as someone who merely exists in the shadows, joins them at the royal throne. The King invites Gawain to share a tale of himself, to which Gawain shamefully replies, bowing at the King’s knee, “I have none to tell.”

Suddenly, opportunity knocks when the Green Knight enters the great halls to present a confounding test to one of the King’s knights. This mysterious presence strikes fear as the Green Knight’s earthy appearance, colossal ax and sonorous voice could lull Satan to sleep. When none step up, a newly headstrong Gawain aims to add a chapter of nobility to his story by accepting the creature’s game.

Gawain is challenged to land a blow on the Green Knight. However, the Knight is also then allowed to return that same blow one year later. Confused by the Knight’s Obi-Wan-like lack of combat, Gawain heartily beheads him. To great shock (as featured in the trailer), the Knight’s headless body rises to grab his noggin and walks away guffawing—a sure indication of Gawain’s impending doom.

While the townsfolk spread tales of Gawain’s courage, even putting on puppet shows at the village square, the King’s nephew spends the next year questioning what the encounter meant and what fate lies ahead. Is Gawain as fearless as everyone paints him, or will his next brush with the Knight smear dirt upon the story he so desperately wants for himself?

The film’s two best scenes, next to the film’s final 15 minutes (which, for the most part, uses only imagery to bring its heavy narrative themes home), feature conversations about defining nobility and if courage makes a king. One happens with Gawain’s favored consort (Vikander), and the other with Edgerton’s rough-hewn Lord character, who our protagonist meets along the journey. These sequences examine honesty and honor in a way that causes the viewer to grapple with thoughts of legacy and ambition and become curious about their cost. Of course, we all make sacrifices, both big and small, but who or what are we genuinely doing it for?

The Green Knight is overflowing with curious, well-inked text located between the lines. Some will recognize the film’s beauty quickly, while others may dismiss it as weird nonsense or acknowledge it later. So, allow it to nestle in your brain and expand your mind. Through its ambiguous vision and gorgeous cinematography (by the gifted Andrew Droz Palermo), Lowery’s film is thoughtful and spiritually fulfilling—one to ponder for years to come.

Grade: A

THE GREEN KNIGHT is now playing in theaters.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.