There’s a Green Knight in King Arthur’s court, and he wants to play a game—a Christmas game. The rules are simple: Whoever is “boldest of blood and wildest of heart step forth, take up arms and try with honor to land a blow against me.” If they do, they will win the Green Knight’s ax. Any number of the knights present could do that, but there’s a catch: Should the challenger land a blow then, in one year’s time, he will travel to the Green Chapel six nights to the north and meet the Green Knight once more, who will return what he received. That’s a pretty significant caveat, one that turns off the Knights of the Round. Except for Gawain (Dev Patel), a young man who has yet to approach his quest. He spends his days drinking in brothels and dreaming of greatness rather than in church or with Essel (Alicia Vikander), a freckle face maiden with eyes for Gawain. Now is his chance to do something, to say yea to the adventure. He agrees to the Green Knight’s game, and with help from Excalibur, lops off the Green Knight’s head with a single swing. But as Jesus discovered, death is but the beginning.
The Green Knight from writer/director David Lowry is littered with Christ references, even introducing both Essel and Gawain with the line, “Christ is born.” She is referring to Gawain coming out of his booze-soaked sleep ready for carnal pleasures. Lowry is referring to something more circular.
There are a lot of circles in The Green Knight, both in image and in theme. The most potent comes courtesy of the crowns Arthur and Guinevere wear that look like halos. But they’re not Arthur and Guinevere—at least not in name. They are simply King (Sean Harris) and Queen (Kate Dickie). Ditto for Excalibur, which is not mentioned by name but treated with proper reverence, and Merlin, who speaks not a word and looks more like Rasputin than a kindly old magician (Emmet O’Brien).
Not that you need to know the players or what Lowry is playing on to enjoy The Green Knight—though it helps to have patience. There is something enjoyably scholastic about The Green Knight. It’s as if Lowry cobbled together every version of the story, gave it the Nikos Kazantzakis treatment, and placed it in a world that looks more primeval and medieval. It is dark and damp and dreary inside the castle walls. Outside, it’s worse.
Or, at least it’s more chaotic. When Gawain’s year expires, he rides out to the Green Chapel across druidic land where thieves lie in wait, scavengers pick over the bones of battle, giants wander through the mists, and foxes talk. How literal you want to take those last two is up to you. At one point, a starving Gawain comes across a cluster of mushrooms that he devours with relish and then promptly vomits. Do they induce future hallucinations? Is this the madness of hunger? Both seem possible. The Bible is loaded with so many extended trips into deserts, gardens, and mountains with little provisions that you begin to wonder if God prefers to talk on an empty stomach.
From one viewpoint, God in Lowry’s Green Knight is not the god of the heavens but the god of the earth. The Green Knight himself (Ralph Ineson) looks like a large sentient tree that sometimes needs the voice of others to speak and sometimes can manage on his own. There seem to be no hard and fast rules in The Green Knight, and it would not be a stretch to apply any number of readings to the film. A young man’s coming-of-age tale seems apt, but there’s a strong ecological bent worth uncovering. But it was the Christ parable I found most rewarding. The movie’s middle section meanders in pacing—it mirrors Gawain’s quest—but the ending buys it back tenfold. It also helps that Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography and Daniel Hart’s score are simultaneously intoxicating and unnerving.
The world is a bizarre place filled with trials and temptations. It’s why we tell stories in the first place. They bring order to chaos and give us threads to follow. Watching The Green Knight in 2021 is an interesting proposition: It doesn’t feel like a movie for the present, nor does it feel like something unearthed from the past. It feels like a fairy tale.
The Green Knight (2020)
Written and directed by David Lowry
Based on the Chivalric Romances
Produced by Toby Halbrooks, Tim Headington, James M. Johnston, David Lowery, Theresa Steele Page
Starring: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton, Erin Kellyman
A24, Rated R, Running time 125 minutes, Opens in theaters July 30, 2021.