My first exposure to the legend of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” came in my Grade 7 English class when, after briefly studying the classic Arthurian tale, we mounted a small stage production to put on for other students and teachers. Fancying myself quite the thespian at the time, I took on the lead role of Gawain… or was it the Green Knight? The funny thing is, for as much recollection I have of participating, I can’t remember for the life of me which of the two roles I actually played, resulting in a weird fugue state that troubles me to this day. Was I the beheader or the beheaded?
David Lowery’s ultra-sleek and fashionably heady version of The Green Knight aims to immerse you in a similar fugue state, through its commitment to oppressive mood and slippery narrative structure. From the outset, it hews close to the original story of honour and chivalry, wherein a young Gawain (Dev Patel) takes up the crazy challenge proposed by the Green Knight (a digitized marvel voiced by Ralph Ineson) to deal a sword-blow to the neck of this strange intruder in King Arthur’s court. The only catch is that the Green Knight, who bears a striking resemblance to the tree-like Ents of Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth, shall return this blow exactly a year later, an illogical proposition that Gawain and all the other onlooking knights snidely shrug off. But when the seemingly fatal strike is dispensed and the Green Knight just picks up his severed head off the ground and rides away laughing, Gawain’s hasty show of machismo quickly turns to unsettling confusion.
Gawain is smartly played here as less of an aspiring knight than a layabout, preferring to spend his days cavorting around in the brothel with local girl Essel (Alicia Vikander) than in practicing any sort of honourable duty. He therefore jumps at the Green Knight’s challenge purely as a boast, as well as an easy route to potentially succeed Arthur at the throne. But when “A Quick Year Later” arrives, Gawain must put his entire essence of being to the test as he sets out on a journey to the mythic Green Chapel in order to keep his date with destiny.
In what could be called A24’s version of a summer blockbuster, The Green Knight certainly doesn’t lack for visual splendour, with Lowery treating Gawain’s journey through the fields and forests (filmed throughout the vast Irish countryside) as a mystical head trip hewing closer to the existentialist excursions of Tarkovsky or Jodorowsky than any standard-issue sword-and-sorcery flick. As Gawain naively wades through a purgatorial landscape (much like the title character in Lowery’s own prior cosmic exercise, A Ghost Story) while having curious encounters with a group of thieves (led by the eternally creepy Barry Keoghan), a ghostly girl with her own beheading issue (Erin Kellyman), and the enigmatic Lord and Lady (Joel Edgerton and Vikander again) of a house where he takes refuge, the mesmeric quality of sound and image threaten to overtake your senses completely. The medieval fantasy world that Lowery conjures is also blissfully free of an overreliance on CGI – and when it is employed, like in an awesome sequence featuring a group of giant Fantastic Planet-esque beings, it’s done so to stunning effect.
For such a well-known folk tale, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has rarely been adapted to the screen throughout cinema’s history, unlike, say, a similarly arcane text like “Beowulf”. The most notable example up to this point would have been 1984’s uber-cheesefest Cannon Films production of Sword of the Valiant, which featured a hilariously spray-painted-in-green Sean Connery as the titular knight and featured production values about on par with my aforementioned elementary school play. Now, Lowery steps in to create what will probably stand as the definitive cinematic version of the tale, embracing the anonymous and mysterious nature of the original writing by subverting our expectations of where his film is ultimately heading while remaining stubbornly vague about what we’re even supposed to take away from it all.
The stunner of a finale, where Gawain finally enters the Green Knight’s domain and may or may not come away unscathed, cements the thrilling unreliability of the entire endeavour. As you walk out of the theatre sufficiently dazed by the totality of The Green Knight’s striking vision, you may also find yourself wondering, “Who is the beheader and who is the beheaded?”