‘The Green Knight’ Review: Dev Patel Decapitates His Destiny in David Lowery’s Arthurian Masterpiece
In which King Arthur's overzealous adult nephew learns that the world is stranger and more complicated than he ever thought possible, "The Green Knight" is an intimate epic told with the confidence that its hero is about every corner find fights. Stoned out of the head and shot with a cross-genre mastery that should make John Boorman proud, it is also the rare film that knows exactly what it is, an even rarer film that feels perfectly at home when it doesn't know exactly what he is.
The surreal genius of David Lowery's "filmed adaptation of the chivalric novel by Anonymous" (to quote the text on screen) is that it has shown the unresolved nature of its source material from the 14th for more than half a millennium. Is it a pagan story about the Fall or is it a Christ-like search for hope of salvation? Does it bow to chivalry as a noble bulwark against the true nature of man, or does it laugh at the idea that a knight's code would ever be a solid defense against its deeper instincts? Is it a misogynist poem about manipulative witches or a proto-feminist ode to the power of women over men?
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To all of these questions and more, Lowery answers a rousing "Yes!" And yet, what keeps "The Green Knight" growing in your head for days after watching it (like moss; like rot) is that at no point in Sir Gawain's journey from the Round Table to Forest Citadel, where his fate awaits, does Lowery become ambiguous . Instead, he pulls the tangled knots that have tied this saga to our collective imaginations for so many centuries, weaving them all into a timeless fantasy about the struggle for the meaning of an irreconcilable world. Hypnotic from its fiery prelude to the bellybeat of a finale and polished with a touch of heavy metal that makes the whole thing shimmer in the dark like a black light poster in the basement of your friend's parents' house "The Green Knight". could hit theaters on 600 years of troubled history, but Lowery makes it feel brand new by re-saddling it up as a personal story about someone who is just trying to become the type of man he can live with, even if it's him kill .
The film's contradicting and vaguely somber energy is fully evident from the first shot, as young Gawain (a scruffy Dev Patel) sits on King Arthur's throne, waiting for his own legend to be told; However, when the narrative actually begins, the narrator's demonic growl announces that we are not facing a simple story of honor and fame. From there, "The Green Knight" opens up like a burning house when Andrew Droz Palermo's curvy camera sees Gawain, who evades his chivalric duties while he slept through Christmas day in a brothel, while his beautiful lover Donkey (Alicia Vikander with a the strongest elves in cinema) cuts this side of Faye Wong) whispers sweet nonsense in his ear. Shout “Christ is born!” Follow them down the damp hallways, but there is no trace of Jesus here.
Patel's Gawain is not quite as godly as medieval scholars may remember; a legitimate young heir to the throne who fears he is not meant to be the size expected of him. This Gawain has less to do with King Arthur than with Kendall Roy, and his swagger vanishes as soon as he joins the legendary knights who fill his uncle's dining room. The term "cheat syndrome" will not be coined for a few centuries, so Gawain has to deal with his feelings of unworthiness as if he were the first person to ever hide them under his mail shirt.
Arthur (played by a kind, gasping, and wonderfully human Sean Harris) and his Guinevere (the great Kate Dickie who doesn't make us comfortable) want to know more about their nephew, but Gawain insists he has no stories to tell . And then, as if listening to her son's prayers from afar, Gawain's magical mother (Sarita Choudhury) writes her first chapter for him when she summons a bulky warrior to step into the castle on horseback and a friendly game of the bravest of souls to ask there.
The Green Knight in Lowery's film, voiced inimitably by "The Witch" star Ralph Ineson, is a wonderful creation that anticipates the fanciful wonder that transpires so much in the story to come. Equipped with the body of a giant and the head of a Ents, this emerald green patch of forest exudes a benevolence that rubs against the threat it poses to any man who stands in his way, and conjures up one of the forest gods from "Princess Mononoke "Up" before we see grass sprout from the cobblestones under his feet. When he offers him a free blow, with the only restriction that he will return the same blow in exactly one year, our boy Gawain jumps up and - temporarily - cuts off the knight's head. In just one sweep, Gawain's thirst for immortality left him only 12 months to live.
There's a bit of Robert Ford in Gawain's rattling shame, and Daniel Hart's exquisite score - a percussive gust of steeled nerves and seasick nightmares in the shadows of stirring violin storm clouds - enriches the texture of Patel's trembling performance. Few actors have better embodied a man so at war with his own integrity, and so much of our excitement when Gawain rides out to find the Green Knight rests on how Patel puts our hopes in finding his character difficult. Do we want him to learn the honor the hard way and be beheaded for his insolence, or would we rather somehow avoid the reparation for which he so gallantly volunteered his own head? Not even Gawain seems to know what fate is his due, or whether he values the knight's title more than the honor that is due to him. It is no wonder that a story about someone conflicted with virtue because of some social influence should feel so modern.
"The Green Knight"
So much of our excitement comes from the dream-like charge Lowery sews into every scene of Gawain's journey. Long and lazy shots of Patel riding through the Irish countryside cast a spell that slows your heartbeat and prepares your mind for the drowsy haze of the adventure ahead - this is one of those films that insist an Oscar for it the best location scouting should give. Gawain's encounter with a brave villain (played by Barry Keoghan) on a corpse-strewn battlefield is in equal parts “The Mists of Avalon” and “Come and See,” while a breathtaking encounter with a clan of bald giants from René Laloux's “Fantastic Planet ”as the (relatively) grounded first half of the film gives way to the floating fantasy of the second.
The sophisticated visual trickery of this final effect embodies how Lowery creates a fascinating Arthurian world that speaks to the 21st century without surrendering to it. There are some obvious touches of CGI here and there - Gawain's WETA-designed fox companion doesn't quite pay off, which justifies its unreality - but it's telling that the movie's strongest moments are produced in-camera. One particularly memorable shot finds Gawain tied with a rope on the floor of a forest when the camera pans 360 degrees clockwise to discover that Gawain has turned into a skeleton, and then undoes this sorcery by opposing herself turns clockwise to where things were. Even in its simplest form, "The Green Knight" is haunted by an eerie awareness of the judgment of time; the veiled threat that the people we might be tomorrow pose to the people we are today.
The same conditional Frisson is seen during the film's wordlessly breathtaking 15-minute finale, and - in Gawain's eerie encounter with the ghost of St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman) searching for her skull - the people we were yesterday become also takes into account the mix. In "The Green Knight" nobody is just a thing. Wide-eyed Vikanders as a poor donkey, for example, is made all the more powerful by the later appearance of the actress as a horny seductress from the other side of the economic spectrum. What may sound like the film's most carnal stretch becomes its most ethereal instead, as Gawain's manhood is dragged and tested in a way that makes him wonder if the virtue he aspires to is possibly spawning his own kind of violence.
Like all questions that ask him on his way to the Green Citadel, Gawain has to work out the answer himself in the end. "The Green Knight" deals with so many contradictions that have accompanied the poem for hundreds of years, but the film's merciless beauty - its severed head and pounding heart - is rooted in the eternal fact that life is always too wild to make it agree with you. No code of honor can erase all selfishness. No human laws can exist outside the reach of nature. No reality can arise without the imagination necessary to drive it.
In this film, as in the legend that inspired it, every interaction depends on an unequal exchange. Lowery's unforgettable adaptation refuses to do the math for us, but it's all the more exciting how she insists that the only real value to anything in this world is what we find in it for ourselves. “Are you real or are you a ghost?” Asks Gawain St. Winifred somewhere on his way between spoiled brat and Arthurian legend, “What's the difference?” She snorts back. "I just need my head."
A24 brings "The Green Knight" to cinemas on Friday, July 30th.
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