David Lowery’s ‘The Green Knight’ decapitates medieval expectations

movie still from the Green Knight
A24/Courtesy

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

Movie fans and literature buffs, rejoice. Midsummer is here, and with it, the coming of writer/director David Lowery’s take on one of the most essential tales of Arthurian legend — and one of the most immensely satisfying adaptations ever to grace the screen.

Lowery’s latest, the A24-produced “The Green Knight,” is admittedly very, very light on medieval sword-and-shield spectacle, offering instead an epic of the internal — and a rapturous, wonderfully bizarre one at that. As the fiery introduction to the film makes clear, this is no ordinary tale of honor and glory.

This cinematic shock sets in early: A cold splash of water abruptly breaks through the gentle snow and misty air of Christmas morning on the outskirts of Camelot, immediately waking the young Gawain (Dev Patel) from his stint at the local brothel. In a frantic, sparsely-lit tracking shot racing through the halls with his lover and companion, Essel (Alicia Vikander), the young nephew of King Arthur gets hastily dressed to attend the feast at the Round Table. “Are you a knight yet?” a voice asks him, as the two prepare to ride back into town. “I’m not ready yet,” he later replies, catching his breath.

At court, the king (Arthur, played by Sean Harris) and queen (Guinevere, played by Kate Dickie) invite Gawain to sit by their side. The young noble is asked to tell a tale of his own; seeing himself in a room full of legendary heroes, Gawain ashamedly admits that he has “none to tell.” Notably, Arthur and Guinevere —  along with the various other members of the round table —  are never mentioned by name: Lowery smartly steers the film’s focus away from the larger Arthurian narrative, removing all potential distractions from the story at hand. There are no cinematic universes here.

Without warning enters the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a fantastical being of nature who arrives at the royal hall to challenge the bravest of warriors to a game in which the two exchange blows: the first to be dealt to the visitor on the spot and the second to be returned exactly one year later at the far-off Green Chapel. After our would-be warrior decapitates the knight in a hurried display of valor, the stakes are set and the tale is in motion.

Gawain’s ensuing quest for courage finds “The Green Knight” locked in a steady, dizzying rhythm, further enhanced by breathtaking camerawork from cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo which transforms scenes into green, mossy atmosphere at some points and into gorgeous, high contrast paintings at others, at times warping the visuals into an almost psychedelic experience. The otherworldly score from composer Daniel Hart, imbued with ticking percussion, lends a mystical, sometimes pagan aura, furthering the film’s merits as a totally absorbing sensory experience.

But the spotlight is most importantly on Dev Patel, the anchor to which all of this is bound. Here, he is Lowery’s muse at the center of all the madness. His nuanced, emotive portrayal is most powerfully conveyed through his eyes as he gives a star turn perfectly embodying the vulnerable-yet-charismatic young lead at the heart of the film struggling to both accept and overcome forces beyond his control. None of this works without his absolutely Oscar-worthy performance; he delivers and then some. 

By the time the axe is set to come down in the finale (a stunning 15-minute sequence worth the price of admission alone), viewers have been witness to an uncompromising journey of self-discovery in the face of man’s biggest fear of all: mortality. The film’s most astonishing feat is its preservation of the richness of the source material, overflowing with symbolism and purposefully rife with contradiction; the journey of the audience is much like that of Gawain’s, and Lowery makes no concessions for the sake of cleanliness or easier understanding.

As such, it’s best to set expectations accordingly: Those anticipating a Patel-led summer action blockbuster may find themselves sorely disappointed, even confused. But make no mistake: Lowery’s “filmed adaptation of the chivalric romance by Anonymous” (as the opening credits clarify) is one of the year’s most compelling films. It’s an unforgettable meditation on codes of honor, the quest for greatness and the oft-anxiously unpredictable adventure that is coming of age.

Some will decry “The Green Knight” as frustratingly unsatisfying arthouse pretension. Others (such as this writer) will herald the film as a deeply gratifying treasure trove that rewards repeat viewings. No matter where you stand, one thing is certain. Heads will roll.

Vincent Tran is the deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected].