Billed as an “epic fantasy” but playing more like precisely what it is, an adaptation of a 14th century poem from the director of the Pete’s Dragon reboot (produced by the studio that brought you Midsommar), The Green Knight is black licorice. It is either very much your tasty-tasty jam or consuming it is gonna make you hork. Also, even if you love it, too much black licorice can actually kill you. There’s a point here somewhere…
Back when the tale of Gawain vs gettin’ slutty was first put to parchment, the written word was mostly reserved for telling folks which behaviors/food may get them killed, which God/Gods/witchcraft to obey, and, of course, how to oppress women and mistreat foreigners. Thus, the fact that writer/director David Lowery’s The Green Knight has an oddly resonant message is kinda depressing. Even by accident, we probably should have evolved past morality plays that teach us to make basic personal sacrifices for the collective good and that lying is, you know, bad. But here we are, in wave four of a pandemic that could have been crushed by simple kindness and honesty. You live, you (don’t) learn, apparently.
As should be expected of a plot more than 600 years old, The Green Knight is a basic bitch. Gawain (Dev Patel) wants to be a knight. His uncle, King Arthur (Sean Harris), hasn’t made him one yet, presumably because Gawain is kind of a tool. He has a girlfriend (Alicia Vikander) he won’t publicly acknowledge. He drinks wine and whines when he drinks. He’s only slightly less entitled than current political offspring.
When a Swamp Thing-looking, unjolly green giant throws a gauntlet onto the round table at a Christmas feast, Gawain sees his chance to make his name. The deal is that he gets a free whack at Moss Man now; however, medieval Hulk gets to return the blow one year later. Gawain uses Excalibur like a pro but is bummed when the severed head of buff Shrek says, “Cool story, bro. See you in a year.” What follows is a slow-boil quest that explores moral imperatives, rape culture, and random fantasy nonsense.
That random fantasy nonsense is just so extremely, very much the absolute shit. There is undoubtedly profound symbolism in moments like the upside-down portrait that haunts Gawain and the super-mega-huge naked people walking through a barren valley. Even if there wasn’t, such scenes would still be simply so very pretty and create an almost intimidating feeling of mysticism and majesty. Speaking as an absolute nerdball who once translated parts of Beowulf from Old English, Lowery fully understands how to leverage the beauty and weirdness of the initial collision between paganism and Christianity.
The film does make a few minor, pivotal changes. One of them involves a Clintonian wardrobe soiling, and the other is a cheeky tweak to the ending. The former helps update chivalric sexual boundaries for modern day audiences. The latter is the best kind of ambiguous. Any number of interpretations are valid and will reflect not only long-held views of the viewer but the impressions impressed by the impressionists behind the film.
For those so inclined, The Green Knight is divine, literally and figuratively. It is a triumphant, boldly serious, carefully modernized take on an archaic but still relevant ode to not being a dickweed. English majors, rejoice responsibly.
Grade = A
Other Critical Voices to Consider
George M Thomas of the Akron Beacon says “[Lowery] does something different by placing as much emphasis on exploring Gawain’s growth as a person. That aspect of the film goes hand-in-hand with Arthurian principles, if considering a decidedly modern interpretation. Green Knight is a medieval coming-of-age tale.
Kristy Puchko at IGN says “If you can get on the wavelength of such an artful quest, you’ll be rewarded. Once you’ve found that footing, The Green Knight is a heart-rattling, loins-riling, and head-spinning trip that packs a profound punch.”
Adriana Gomez-Weston at Cinematic Soloist says “At times, The Green Knight meanders, showing even the most mundane moments of Gawain’s journey. No, not every hero’s journey is fraught with bloody battles and chance encounters with magical creatures. A vast majority of the time, the hero wanders alone, forced to face his own fears, and the biggest enemy of all, his own mind.”