It took me a couple of minutes to become fully immersed in the world of The Green Knight. That’s only because the film opens with a fade-in accompanied by a somberly ringing bell, which, in a medieval-themed movie, always makes me expect to hear Eric Idle calling “Bring out your dead!”
Once I banished that thought, however, I was sucked in to the strange, surreal world that David Lowery has conjured for this “filmed adaptation” (as the credits remind us) of the anonymous 14th-century tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Lowery, whose previous films include Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story (and who, as always, should not be confused with the musician David Lowery), takes some liberties with the narrative, but creates a world full of poetic foreboding and dark romanticism where chivalry and sorcery, pagan traditions and Christian references, co-exist.
Gawain (played by Dev Patel and pronounced “GA-win”), is the son of the sorceress Morgan Le Fay and the nephew of the now-aging King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie, who played Lysa Arryn on Game of Thrones). He’s an underachiever, a slacker who hasn’t even earned the right to be called a knight. One Christmas, the titular, treelike creature (voiced by Ralph Ineson) waltzes into Arthur’s Court and proposes a gambit. He will allow one volunteer to take one swing at him with his own axe, but that person must travel to meet the Green Knight one year hence and allow the favor to be returned.
Gawain, eager for a chance to finally prove himself, steps forward, and promptly beheads the wooden intruder, who just as promptly retrieves his head, reminds the court of the bargain, and rides off. Fast forward to the following Yuletide, and our hero reluctantly parts with his paramour Essen (Alicia Vikander) to embark on his quest. As Gawain leaves behind even a modest veneer of civilization, Lowery’s imagination takes full flight, up to and including a CGI animal companion that’s the second most disturbing talking fox in film history—after, of course, the one in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist.
This is a classic hero’s journey, in the Joseph Campbell mold, and one that was a major inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s also a stoic meditation on mortality. But it’s also a sometimes cheekily fun head trip of a movie. Lowery manages to incorporate the portent without being pretentious, through the loose, relatively modern performances and dialogue; the inventive costume design; and the unconventional (for the genre) score. The casting of Patel, always a sympathetic audience surrogate, in the lead helps as well—his appearance is distinctive at Arthur’s court and among those he meets on his quest.
During the third act of The Green Knight, Lowery’s infatuation with narrative smoke and mirrors, with mood over clarity, gets ahead of him at times. Yes, it’s intriguing to wonder what’s real and what’s a dream, or why an actor pops up in a double role, but only to an extent. Similarly, Lowery refuses to make a rational interpretation of the various allegorical bits and bobs an easy (or even possible) task. Despite that, the film does come to a satisfying, if still perplexing, conclusion.
If Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the Arthurian saga for stoners, and John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur is a coked-up take on the classic tale, then The Green Knight provides a version for the mescaline and ayahuasca crowd. And if that sentence makes even partial sense, then this might be the movie for you.
(The Green Knight opens Friday, July 30 at Cinema 21, the Hollywood Theatre, the Kiggins Theatre, the [newly re-opened] Cinemagic, and others)