Review: 'The Green Knight’s' strange tale proves worthy

After a winding road to the box office, David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” finally reached theaters on July 30.

by James Cronin | 8/6/21 1:00am

by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth Staff

“The Green Knight” by David Lowery has been one of my most anticipated films of this year ever since I first saw the trailer for it in February of 2020 — a lifetime ago, in other words. I was excited to see it for a few reasons, and not just because of the fact that I’m a film minor and, as such, I’m contractually obligated to fawn over any and all A24 movies. I was excited because of my love for fantasy, my love for dark takes on well-trodden genres and because I greatly enjoyed Lowery’s last film, “The Old Man and the Gun.”

I finally saw it this past Monday, by myself and in a mostly empty theater, and as I finished shaking off the hypnosis Lowery had put me under for the past two hours, I found myself conflicted. I knew what I had seen was a good movie — the cinematography, the performances and the costume design all came together in an absolutely spellbinding fashion that resonates with me now even days later — but I was unsure if what I had seen was a great movie. I couldn’t tell if the parts that had left me confused had done so because I didn’t understand the logical, narrative reasons for why they were there, or if it was because of an annoying trend I’ve found as of late, especially with A24 films, where the movie intentionally makes itself and its meaning nebulous for no other reason than to confuse viewers in a bid to make them think that the movie is smarter than it is. Looking at you, “The Lighthouse,” love you as I might.  

Now, however, days later and having done a bit of research, I see that what may have initially gone over my head was not the result of shoddy filmmaking nor my own stupidity, but rather the result of a skilled director expertly and deliberately utilizing symbolism that, once you start to grasp it, greatly elevates the film and makes it one of — if not the best — movies to come out this year.

“The Green Knight” is a retelling of the 14th century chivalric romance “Ser Gawain and the Green Knight.” In the poem, a mysterious knight with green hair and green skin rides into the court of King Arthur on Christmas Day and challenges the court to a bizarre game. Gawain is set off on a quest in which he must face trials, tribulations and temptations as he slowly learns the true nature of chivalry. The film is Lowery’s take on the ancient poem — he wrote the screenplay and directed the film — and introduces mortality as another key theme of the tale. Understanding the text is a key part to understanding the film, and many of the things that I didn’t understand would have been much clearer if I had engaged with the text prior to watching. 

Almost every artistic and technical aspect of “The Green Knight” is done superbly, but it’s the combination of performances and cinematography that really carry the movie. Dev Patel as Ser Gawain is magnificent and critical to this movie’s success, as it is with Gawain that we spend nearly every minute of the film. His dynamic performance is what makes the classic hero’s journey so captivating. I also enjoyed Sean Harris’s performance as King Arthur. His portrayal is regal and maintains a quiet depth, perfectly tailored for a character of such legendary status. Ralph Ineson, caked in makeup and prosthetics and looking like half-Ent, half-man, also must be commended for his portrayal of the titular antagonist. Even though he is visually unrecognizable, there’s no mistaking his signature gravelly voice, which truly sells the Green Knight as an ominous and ancient force.

The visuals in this film are both magnificent and enchanting, yet grounded with a firm sense that this world could really have existed at one point. Whether it was Camelot disappearing in the distance as Gawain sets off on his journey, giants slowly crossing a plain and fading into the white haze of the horizon or even something as simple as Gawain standing in the doorway of an ancient grove — all of the visuals in the film are a delight to watch and make you feel as if you’re peering into the past at a place that time has long since forgotten.

Many of the shots are long, and when they linger on a landscape or character, they often produce an ethereal, almost psychedelic effect on the viewer. Some of these are less intoxicating than others and left me eager to advance to the next chapter in Gawain’s quest, which brings me to my biggest gripe about the movie on a first watch — the length. “The Green Knight” is a slow burn, which it needs to be in order to allow its themes to marinate in your psyche, but at 130 minutes, there were times when I found myself bored and even checked my phone to see how much longer was left in the movie. This seems silly to me now, but that was my genuine reaction on my blind watch.

This aspect of the film, combined with my lack of confidence as to whether I had been hoodwinked by vapid nonsense or seen a genuine piece of art, is why I thought it merely mid-tier at first. Its performances and visuals alone made it enjoyable to watch, but I wanted to know if it really said anything. It was only after I had gone home, watched a video or two breaking down the movie and read some articles about the original legend that I realized how masterfully Lowery had sewn so many aspects of the text into the film. This gave me an entirely new appreciation for it that forces me to forgive it for taking its time at some points.          

All this is to say that “The Green Knight” is merely a good movie on a blind, first watch, but if you choose to engage with the film on a deeper level, you will find that it is, in fact, a great movie that lends itself well to multiple viewings. If you, like me, are not a scholar of medieval literature or have simply never read “Ser Gawain and the Green Knight” in an English class before, this movie is still for you. How much you enjoy it, however, is entirely up to how much work you feel like putting in.

Rating: ★★★★☆