Of all the sweeping epics of Arthurian legend, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” has always stood tall among the crowd for how small and off-puttingly personal it is. While other knights set out to search for holy relics or slay dragons, Gawain’s adventure is one of self-discovery, our hero fighting to find what he himself is made of. Over the course of his travels, Sir Gawain stumbles and fumbles his way through several strange episodes that are just as confusing to him as they are to the reader, resulting in a fairy tale that is weird even by the lofty standards of medieval fantasy. As such, many scholars, including J.R.R. Tolkien himself, have cut their teeth trying to interpret it. Now it’s famed writer-director David Lowery’s turn to try to land a hit on this enigmatic myth, and as with his previous film “A Ghost Story,” Lowery proves himself the master of somber surrealism. “The Green Knight” gets water from the textual stone and embraces the legend’s place as a personal journey rather than a grandiose quest, crafting a dream-like fantasy about the universal desire for self-discovery and the simple victories of acceptance.
In the first shot of the film, a dashing prince and a fair maiden, named Paris (Joe Anderson) and Helen (Anaïs Rizzo) by the credits, abscond through a back alley as a manor burns in the distance. This harkens back to the tragedy of the Iliad where the pair doom themselves and their homelands in the pursuit of the greater fates laid out for them by the gods. This destructive desire for destiny is exactly what afflicts our hero, the eager and unproven Sir Gawain, played with career-defining humanity by Dev Patel. Sir Gawain is the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris) who is shamed by his lack of any heroic stories to tell. One day the mysterious Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) barges into Camelot and dares any worthy warrior to land a blow on him, on the condition that in a year’s time that man lets the Knight return the favor. Seeing his opportunity, Gawain takes up the challenge and angling for maximum flair, decapitates the Knight, only for his opponent to pick up his head and ride off. At the urging of Arthur and the rest of the court, Gawain is pressured to leave his home and seek out the Green Knight, proving his bravery and integrity to all by fighting or getting killed by him. Armed with protective charms and his uncle’s aspirations, Gawain sets off, the Green Knight’s ax on his back like a cross he chose, to bring the blade to his executioner.
Along the way, Gawain meets with thieves, saints, foxes, giants, strange lords and stranger ladies on a quest to find himself. But, through the language of religious Apocrypha and mythic symbolism, Lowery makes clear that the hero he seeks in himself is one that doesn’t exist, placed there by the expectations of his family. Gawain is forced to face life alone but he paints a story over it with the colors of others. He chooses to forge a meaning for his life rather than discover one, and in the pursuit of one superior version of ourselves, we may give away all that made us us, and lose our heads. As Gawain’s lover, the prostitute Essel (Alicia Vikander) pointedly asks, “why must he be great if he is already good?” Appropriately, Essel is the only character who expects nothing from Gawain and yet expectations of the court mean he can never have a life with her. Lowery’s “The Green Knight” serves as a brilliant parable about how, in a world of oppressive influences, the most terrific and humble victory there is is simply accepting ourselves, in our goodness, rather than losing ourselves in the forcing of greatness.
But of what worth is a great story if it is told poorly? Fortunately for us, David Lowery is anything but a shabby storyteller. Capturing the fable-logic of the original text, “The Green Knight” crafts an ethereal and oppressive dreamscape, as if the story were hewn from the very fabric of myth. Every shot of this film is resonant, from the yellow mists of an all-too-silent forest to the long takes of Gawain riding through the raw and empty wastelands outside his home. The timeless world Lowery builds feels barren in its minimalism and alive in its specific details. And to this film’s infinite credit, “The Green Knight” is more than willing to plunge its tale into jarring sequences of pure symbolism, with Gawain diving to the bottom of an impossibly deep lake of technicolor stars or having parts of his body rot to bone and leather before returning seamlessly to normal.
The performances add to this film’s mysticism on every front, all delivered with an understated gravity as if every character knows a secret the protagonist doesn’t. Especially of note is Ineson’s performance as the titular Green Knight, who he plays not as malicious, but with a heavy sense of blunt stoicism and nigh hospitable tired familiarity, as if he is a force of the universe. Needless to say, while Ineson’s appearance in the film is sparing, his presence is deeply felt throughout. Even the soundtrack is commendable, growling with a tense menace of a scare we are never sure is coming. Lowery made a cathedral in “The Green Knight,” with every striking scene, beautiful shot, confounding character and whispered line building towards his greater message.
The film is just as much a joy to decode and think about as it is to actually watch. “The Green Knight” is a riddle that invites the viewer to get lost in its striking imagery and strange details and surreality, and find the meaning in the quest alongside Gawain. With its tapestry-like vistas, its deliciously enigmatic symbolism and deeply personal ruminations, “The Green Knight ” brings the original fantasy to striking life, in all its hallucinogenic magic.