REVIEW: The Green Knight (2021)

The titular character in David Lowery’s THE GREEN KNIGHT — Photo: A24.

Directed by David Lowery — Screenplay by David Lowery.

In the last decade, filmmaker David Lowery has made his filmography appear rather varied and really interesting. The thing is that while he has made these very independent films like this one and A Ghost Story, he has also tried his hand with some more populist films like the live-action adaptation of Pete’s Dragon, which I thought was surprisingly terrific. However, this, The Green Knight, is undoubtedly my favorite film of his thus far.

Based on the 14th-century chivalric romance titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, David Lowery’s medieval fantasy films follows Gawain (played by Dev Patel), who, on Christmas, dines with King Arthur (played by Sean Harris), Queen Guinevere (played by Kate Dickie), and others. During their feast, a mysterious creature-like Green Knight shows up unannounced and challenges the Knight of the Roundtable to land a blow on him.

Should they do so, they would win his massive green axe, but, in doing so, they would also agree to travel to the Green Chapel one year later and receive an equal blow by the Green Knight. Wanting to earn his knighthood, Gawain musters up the courage, accepts the challenge, and decapitates the fearsome Green Knight. However, not long thereafter, the Green Knight rises, lifts his own decapitated head, and reminds Gawain of their bargain. One year later his journey to the Green Chapel begins.

There is no getting around it. When it comes down to it, this film will be a slog to some viewers. Those who aren’t interested in patient storytelling in the vein of A24’s The VVitch may have a tough time with this one. Because The Green Knight is a patient, slow burn of a film. David Lowery’s filmmaking wants us to ponder what might happen, he wants us to think about what could happen if our main character chose a different path. In a way, these moments evoke Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. As there is more than one instance in which the film teases us with an alternative. It is a purposefully vague film that may sit with you if you are open to its mysteries. Some won’t bite (and that’s okay), but others will be swept up by this medieval Christmas epic. I loved this one.

I would say that this is really a chivalric coming-of-age film, with some sort of a test of manhood — or, rather, knighthood — in it. We see Gawain go through several tests of chivalry, and I think they are all mighty fascinating. One of them is basically a horror short film, and I loved every minute of it. On this journey, Gawain gets to know himself and, at the same time, his true colors come to light. I thought the narrative was exceptionally well-executed, with the different stages of the test being quite haunting in their own unique ways.

The look of the film is also quite extraordinary. The strong greens, reds, and yellows tend to dominate the picture on the journey. Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is, frankly, some of the best of the year, and the creature design of the titular character has really stuck with me. From top to bottom, this is an extraordinarily well-executed project that succeeds in what it sets out to do, even if it tests viewers’ patience and even though it is too vague for its own good. Though, I will definitely say that, to me, it is much more accessible and effective than Lowery’s previous existentialist independent picture A Ghost Story.

But even though it is more accessible than the aforementioned film, it would be wrong to call this an action film. There is barely any. Instead, we are treated to an outer and inner journey communicated through dreamlike images conjured up by Palermo’s beautiful and haunting images, as well as the fluid but purposeful filmmaking. There are strange mysterious creatures, contemplative horror- and dreamlike scenes made even more powerful by the score.

It also features a wonderful role for Dev Patel to chew up. He’s a familiar face with a strong filmography, but I think this is his best work. It should catapult him into leading man stardom, but I fear that not enough people will have seen it to make that happen. The film also includes memorable turns from Sean Harris, Barry Keoghan, and Alicia Vikander.

Unforgettable and confidently made, David Lowery’s The Green Knight is an extraordinary tale of heroism and temptation. It is, like I suggested, a medieval Christmas epic about chivalry, as well as existentialism. It may be slow, but if you give it time to wash over you, I really do believe that this film has something that should not be missed. I think it’s easily one of the best films of 2021, as well as one of the best fantasy films of the last decade.

9 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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