“Tell me a tale of yourself, so that I might know thee.“
An axe laid onto cold stone, plush verdant moss growing from the cracks in its weathered surface, mystical and mesmerizing, its ornately carved surface whispering ancient tales of great adventure and many a slain foe. Dust swirls around the cold wintry hall, the atmosphere thick with tension as a towering being kneels in submission, sowing the seeds of a twisted game of fate and consequence. A game not lightly played, a game of truth and honor, courage and character. A game whose rules and movements become a reflection of a journey far more inward than its sprawling Arthurian origins and vast scale may suggest. As it moves from claustrophobic, grimy streets to grand landscapes of lush foliage inhabited by mythical creatures and deceptive apparitions, it slowly builds, a harmonious crescendo that culminates in a beautifully transcendent final note.
David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a heavenly slice of cinematic decadence, a minimalist fantasy adventure steeped in haunting atmosphere and internalized conflict. A constantly shifting stained glass image, bright sun and dim moonlight illuminating vibrant tints that dance across the screen over the trials and tribulations of Dev Patel’s riveting performance as Gawain. While thoughts of the tale of a brave knight in search of glory and honor conjure images of kinetic action sequences and stark moral clarity, Lowery inverts his approach as the distinctly un-knighted Gawain is constantly met with battles of the mind that seek to challenge his resolve. Despite his scruffy appearance and endearing grin, Gawain is rife with personal failings and privileged arrogance; a smug, entitled air that shrouds his inner cowardice and indecision. His intensely complex collective of warring emotions slowly project themselves onto his adventure, an unraveling and dizzying series of events that leave you questioning your own thoughts on how his tale should end.
The way it constantly plays with and defies expectations feels sharply reflective of Gawain’s mysterious mother (played by a solemn and stoic Sarita Choudhury), a quiet puppet master who seems to constantly lurk in the shadows, orchestrating each rise and fall of Gawain’s symphonic journey through the wilderness. Each dazzling, hypnotic set piece offers a new set of pressing questions to be answered, a frantic request for you to keep up with its abstract, fluid use of time and surreal fantasy imagery. Temptation, deception, and questionable ethics muddy Gawain’s six-day journey to return to the titular Green Knight one year hence from the inception of his game. Barry Keoghan’s gleefully malicious wasteland scavenger cracks an uncomfortably wry grin, introducing Gawain to the brutal reality of the world outside the four warm walls of his favorite brothel. Joel Edgerton delivers a chillingly unsettling display of uncomfortable moments within his strangely off-key castle, and Alicia Vikander provides a hypnotic knockout performance that tugs at the many edges of our hero’s mind, both an image of beaming, sweet romance and devilish temptation.
The film is truly a display of outstanding work in every aspect as Andrew Droz Palermo, Lowery’s past cinematography collaborator on the immaculately and emotionally framed A Ghost Story (2017), paints stunning images of the medieval countryside, rolling hills with grand scale and distinct purpose, a constant flow of movement within each frame. Stark visual delights within the vibrant greens, reds, and yellows of its sun-bathed days and the cold blues and grays of its wintry nights, an endless feast of color and imagination from the ornate details adorning each castle and costume, a gorgeous adventure plucked right from an ancient storybook. But Lowery can’t stop at rich visuals. It also imparts a sensory overload of lush soundscapes, hushed conversations worming their way into your ear and gruff voices carrying might and weight. Beneath it all is a beautiful score from Daniel Hart, who crafts a delightful and melancholy hum of gentle strings and ethereal chorus alongside booming drums, so harmoniously in tune with each beat of the story that to listen to it in full is to revisit the enveloping atmosphere of each entrancing moment.
The Green Knight is everything you waited for and so much more, an operatic Arthurian journey so completely packed with pitch perfect moments that it’s difficult to point to just one as a showcase of how truly exceptional it is. From its first frame, adorned with the fantasy visage of Gawain sitting pensively upon the king’s throne, to its final cut to a mossy log with the film’s title carved into its soft wooden surface, it constantly evokes sweeping emotion and thought-provoking alterations on coming of age cinema. As Gawain’s self-destructive path culminates, following its dazzling display of moral contradictions and strongly human interactions, the game reaches its finale. Gawain has written a tale worth telling, one packed with personal hardship and brilliant fantasy spectacle. But one final question remains, a lingering note, a moment stuck in the air. Fallen leaves rustle and gentle wind whispers. The blow must be returned in one way or another.