The Green Knight is not The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, but it doesn’t try to be any of those things. The marketing for A24 movies tends to get people into the theater, but it doesn’t always paint an accurate portrait as to what the movie will be about. The trailer sold the film as perhaps a more intellectual version of the aforementioned franchises, but in reality, it is much different than that. If anything, writer-director David Lowery’s new re-telling of the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain is a tone poem.
It follows Gawain (Dev Patel) on a quest from Camelot to the mysterious Green Chapel and chronicles the encounters he has along the way. It’s epic, but not in a taking-the-Ring-to-Mordor sense. It’s epic intellectually, and that’s what makes it one of the very best movies of the whole year.
Based off the similarly titled poem, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Green Knight takes inspiration from its source material, while heavily altering the tone. Whereas the tone of the poem is somewhat jovial yet contemplative (at least the translation by J.R.R. Tolkien, which I’ve read), the film takes a much darker, more abstract approach to the story that serves it quite well. Full of jaw-dropping vistas, open landscapes, lifelike practical sets, and engrossing cinematography, the film will take you on a journey that you may or may not even understand.
It might seem straightforward — during the Christmas celebration at Camelot (yes, this is a great Christmas movie), the Green Knight appears and challenges any one of Arthur’s knights to strike him with a blow to the neck, but only on the condition that exactly a year later, they come to his home — the Green Chapel — and let him return the favor. The young, audacious Gawain, looking to prove himself and gain experience and honor as a knight, volunteers. He then spends the rest of the year before the six-day journey like he has the rest of his life: with his lover, getting drunk.
But Gawain does leave for his knightly quest in time to meet the Green Knight, though, the quest isn’t exactly as straightforward as it could seem. Along the way, he encounters bandits, a ghost, a fox that seems to be following him, a generous Lord and his family, and magic mushrooms. There are no easy answers on the journey, neither for Gawain nor the audience. Lowery, like with his previous work for A24, is more interested in symbolism and subjectivity than he is in easy-to-digest visual metaphors. Gawain is stopped over and over by each of his encounters, but we move right on to the next one without so much as a line of dialogue to contextualize what we’ve just seen.
All of this is the perfect backdrop for what Lowery is trying to do. He’s navigating a man’s journey through his own psyche, through his doubts about himself as a person, through the moral conundrums he faces on a day-to-day basis, and through the understanding of the weight of each and every one of his choices. It’s an unforgiving journey to take, but a necessary one, again for both Gawain and the audience.
Lowery collaborates here with director of photography Andrew Droz Palermo and composer Daniel Hart, both of whom helped create A Ghost Story. The cinematography is slow and intentional, measured, yet unpredictable. It guides us through this vision of medieval England, which is unlike any we’ve ever seen. It all feels so natural with the practical sets and on location shots. The relatively small $15 million budget makes you realize how good every movie could look if the same time and care that went into The Green Knight went into everything else. So much has obviously gone into not only the way the camera moves, but how sets are lit and how cast members and extras are dressed.
In a complementary sense, the music is eerie and fitting. Don’t go in expecting large, orchestral pieces a la Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings score. Rather, expect period appropriate instruments with beautiful vocalizations when appropriate. It’s a wonderful sound which absolutely engrosses you into this strange, yet captivating world. Coupled with the immaculate sound design, you’ll be on edge throughout the entire viewing experience.
Of course, all of this would be for naught without the career-best performance from Patel. From Slumdog Millionaire to Lion to Hotel Mumbai, Patel has become a charming, welcoming, and safe presence every time he appears on screen. Here, he shows a side of himself we’ve never seen before. In a word, I’d describe the performance as restrained. In the small handful of scenes where it’s appropriate, he exudes his boyish, naive charm that he’s all but trademarked, but in other scenes, he’s a regal, commanding presence. And these speeds are for when he’s not being just as lost as the audience is. He’s our guide through the story and we go where he takes us. Patel holds the audience’s hand throughout the film — at times he’s sprinting happily and leading us along, at others we feel like equals, and even at other times, he’s firmly directing us where to go.
The Green Knight is a wonderfully atmospheric and sometimes incomprehensible masterpiece. It pulls from classic fantasy fare and from the styles of Martin Scorsese or Ingmar Bergman, and mixes them with its own unique flourishes that make it a complete piece. You’ll contemplate choices, meaning, purpose, honor, and self-doubt, all while being absolutely floored by the cinematic prowess on full display from Lowery, Patel, and all involved.