I should probably start this review with a confession. You see, I’m the rare person who dislikes The Lord of the Rings movies. Moreover, I have never seen a moment of Game of Thrones. I only bring it up to day that the aesthetic and surface level comparisons being made for The Green Knight did not have me hyped. On the other hand, I so love A Ghost Story that it’s easy to trust in filmmaker David Lowery. Good thing, too, since this film really does capture your imagination. Following the beat of its own drummer, it’s safe to say that you have never quite seen a flick like this before.
The Green Knight is an odd duck, but it has a more modern sensibility than you’re expecting. In taking a somewhat short narrative in the source material, one imbued with themes of Christianity, honor and more, Lowery keeps what he wants, but as one character states, when he sees something worth improving, he does. The hutzpah is commendable, but what makes it so interesting is also the respect he shows for the material. He’s definitely mulling the story still, and it’s his goal to make you want to mull it over as well. Well, he succeeds.
A re-telling of the medieval story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, done in a fantasy style, this both full of plot and also somewhat wandering in its narrative. Here, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) is King Arthur’s nephew, passing his days with the lesser in class Essel (Alicia Vkander). His mother (Sarita Choudhury) is a witch, but his uncle (Sean Harris) is King, so he doesn’t quite have a place. When, on Christmas, a gathering is interrupted by the arrive of The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). The giant offers a challenge: play a game with him. Take a strike at him, but a year later, come to him so he can return the favor. Then, a friendship will bloom. Determined to define his character and prove his worth, he accepts. However, he lops off the knight’s head. Cackling, he rides off, saying the game has begun. Against all logic, Gawain plans to set off on this quest.
A year later, Gawain is ready to keep his end of the bargain. Embarking on a daring quest to confront the Green Knight, it quickly proves to be more dangerous than he expected. Almost without any break, Gawain encounters deadly thieves, mysterious ghosts, silent giants, and other characters, including a friendly Lord (Joel Edgerton), as well as his Lady (Vikander), who looks just like Essel. When he arrives at the church where the Green Knight resides, things come to a head. The ending is one you’ll remember, that’s for sure.
Dev Patel is hypnotically good in this challenging role. On screen for nearly every moment, Patel brings you in almost from the first shot. Even as you question some of his decisions, you’re invested in his quest. Sean Harris and especially Alicia Vikander have terrific moments, but they all are very much in Patel’s shadow. Supporting players here include Kate Dickey, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, and more.
David Lowery really puts his own stamp on the medieval story. He may have envisioned the fantasy adventure within Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but its very much his version. Here, we get very little action, but a ton of memorable little moments. Almost nothing he chooses to do here is commercial, but the writing hooks you in. Narratively and visually, he directs the hell out of this flick, allowing you to invest yourself in potentially off-putting material. As always, his below the line work is impeccable, with the cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo and score by Daniel Hart being immediately captivating. Lowery’s pacing is rather slack, but things never stop being interesting for long.
Oscar will almost certainly not take to this one, but The Green Knight is a perfect example of an A24 release. It’s challenging and art house fare, but done in such a way that it’s also somehow cool. The company has a brand, as well as a stamp of approval, and it does lend a bit of unique prestige to any release.
The Green Knight is going to delight a lot of cinephiles, especially those who have been looking forward to seeing it for a year. It’s also going to frustrate and even infuriate a lot of mainstream moviegoers. So, prepare for a divisive reception, overall. That being said, this is quality cinema, so as long as you’re willing to give it a fair shake, you’re in for a weird little treat.