When I was young I adored the King Arthur mythos. My mother bought me a book that broke them down into a simpler format – a tome that I devoured over and over (and recently repurchased on eBay). I moved onto Le Morte d’Arthur and to translations of tertiary tales, eventually reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. It had been a favorite of mine when I read the youthful adaptation, and the poetry of this classic tale of romantic chivalry was enrapturing. The text has been interpreted as both one empowering women and being misogynistic, as both an example of the chivalrous virtue of a knight and a mockery of it. Tolkien himself struggled with the meaning behind the text, his translation published posthumously and with incredible notes from his son, detailing the struggles with word usage and how it could be interpreted.
David Lowery has decided his answer to all of these interpretations would be a resounding “yes,” and then direct you to the true focus of the story – death.
Whenever a film that is enamored with this subject hits screens the public is confused. The Green Knight, which I’ve now see twice, is sitting at the same table as Aronofsky’s The Fountain, Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and Lowery’s own A Ghost Story (which is very much a modernized cousin to this film), and each takes a different stance on death. Lowery’s latest is a contemplation on how we greet our final moments; the approach through life that we all trudge through, eking away at our lives to arrive at the inevitable. It’s a portrait of insignificance, of decisive action, and of just how much life is similar to a drug trip.
The hallucinogenic imagery is perhaps the film’s greatest strength, building character through mere soundscapes and arresting visuals, and these are moments where Lowery gets to shine (the final fifteen minutes is a triumph of cinema and whips ass). Shot in Ireland, every image begs the audience to remember the sheer breadth of human history. The sight of a whale skeleton embedded in the side of an Irish hill, sheltering a bear from the weather as a knight rides by, serves as a reminder of just how pointless we are.
Gawain (Dev Patel), nephew to the aged King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie), is still fumbling through his life and squandering his advantages. Despite spending most days drunk and bedding Esel (Alicia Vikander), a prostitute he harbors true love for, the man longs to be a knight of his uncle’s famous round table. On Christmas, a massive, treelike knight (Ralph Ineson), appears and offers a simple game: meet him in combat and land a blow, all with the understanding that the blow will be returned to you in his chapel exactly a year hence. Gawain sees a chance for glory and hops out, wielding Excalibur itself and beheading the knight. The spirit creature stands, retrieves its head, and rides away cackling after reminding Gawain that he will be owed as good as he got.
It’s an age-old story, one that Lowery blatantly has no shortage of love for. He’s taken this tale, which focuses on the power of women and the folly/glory of a knight’s chivalry, and given it psilocybin before throwing it into the mosh pit at a heavy metal concert. One moment is grounded and gritty, contemplating the selfish or misguided nature of humanity, and the next we see Gawain interacting with giants reminiscent of the aliens in René Laloux’s 1973 film Fantastic Planet. No moment feels safe, but every single one is meticulous and direct in its meaning. Whether being robbed by a moronically clever bandit (Barry Keoghan) or discussing murder with the spirit of the headless St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman), all chapters read together as a man moving through life within a few short days. His cocksure youth is quickly whittled away by the brutality of adulthood, of the loneliness and companionship of maturity, and of the desperation to avoid the final stand despite its inevitability.
It’s easy to know this story, going in with an expectation because it’s such a well-known tale; one taught in classrooms, told amongst friends when discussing literature, and even under the covers with a flashlight (as I did). Lowery has taken this and broken it down, forcing us all to experience it dirty, wet, and high as hell on mushrooms. It’s a beautiful film, one that forces us to confront the true nature of art. I’ve long considered all of literature, music, art, and film to be our way to grapple with death as a species. This is one of the major entries into that canon, overt and stunning to think about as we consider where we’ll meet our end. Lowery’s point? It doesn’t matter precisely where we meet our end, because it’s on the way and we should be ready. His other point? Experience the breadth of humanity before succumbing.
The Green Knight is currently in theatres.