Within the first act of The Green Knight, King Arthur (Sean Harris) asks his nephew Gawain (Dev Patel) to sit next to him and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) as they celebrate Christmas together. The young man is alone as his mother Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) has decided to spend this joyous holiday alone, away from her brother the king and all who follow him. It’s within this moment of trying to connect with his kin that Arthur requests Gawain to recant a story of his life to entertain all who would listen. Gawain, being an inexperienced knight at the time, tells him that he has no stories to tell, inferring that he has yet to have encounters grand enough to speak them into legend. He is not yet the man we know he is based on this ancient story by which this movie is about. After all, in order for something or someone to become a legend, there must be time, skill, and comfortability in such a thing for it to become known on such a grand level. And just like that classic line from the western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance goes, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Thus, by the end of this film, the real legend born from the screen is director David Lowery, who cements himself as the great American director of his generation.
As Gawain’s and the King’s conversation is wrapping up, a dark green creature with tree-like features known at the Green Knight enters with a challenge to anyone who will accept it. The young Gawain accepts the offer but takes the challenge way too far, thus misunderstanding the point of this game, and arrogantly wounds the knight to the point of his demise. But the knight rises, unaffected by the blow he had just been dealt, and tells Gawain he must seek him out in one year’s time and receive the same punishment as he was given. A year passes, and Gawain, while scared to face the consequences of his actions towards the Green Knight, sets out on a quest to fulfill his oath and gain a story proud enough to share with all, thus making him a proper knight.
It’s within Gawain’s journey where we get to see the full reason why Lowery wanted to make this project. A man who has used lingering meditative imagery in films like Ain’t Them Body Saints and A Ghost Story, mixed with accessible stories about legends in Pete’s Dragon and The Old Man and the Gun, would want to take a crack at something as universally epic as this Arthurian adventure. It fits with his running theme of people looking for their purpose in life within a world they seem out of place with. Gawain may have royal blood in his veins and will be a knight or a king one day, but he is not looking for that spotlight. His love is for a girl who is not of royal blood, Essel (Alicia Vikander), and he drinks almost every night to the point of being a buffoon. And yet, instead of running away from his oath, he keeps moving on his quest, no matter what obstacle is put in his way. These hurdles include encounters with a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) and his minions, a mysterious woman (Erin Kellyman) who lost her head, and a lord (Joel Edgerton) who offers him kindness and shelter, with alternative motives. And immensely tempted to give up, he perceivers through to get to his final destination. It’s not in pursuit of honor or achievements. He’s doing it to prove something within himself, no validation is needed from others. It’s deeply relatable and captivating to see someone not fight for lands and/or titles, but fight to achieve their own self-respect. He is just a good man, with a good heart, even if he knows that death is knocking at the end of his journey, it’s how you handle it that will define you. That’s how legends are born. While the film delivers strong supporting performances from a stacked ensemble, in the end, this is Patel’s show through and through.
Through breathtaking optical storytelling, Lowery’s latest does feel like a continuation on the idea of what our death will define our lives and what our world will be like with or without us in it anymore. Its a contemplative look at mortality, much like he did with A Ghost Story, only there is a medieval backdrop as opposed to the present day. The end of this film might be the best thing the director has ever put on screen because of how he uses death as the final lesson for Gawain to learn from. It’s how we as humans think about our life-altering decisions when faced with two difficult options that could change everything. It’s a stroke of genius. But unlike A Ghost Story, we get to see our protagonist without a sheet on his head, this in the form of marvelous Dev Patel, who gives his strongest performance yet in the meatiest role of his career so far. This is unlike anything we’ve seen from him given the emotional range he is displaying with Gawain. While sexy and charming on the surface, but underneath, his terrified looks mixed with confusion bring layers to this character, making you connect with him. It’s almost as if we are seeing this version of the actor for the first time as this looks to be a massive stepping stone into a new world where he will continue to be the confident, vibrant, vulnerable leading man throughout every project he does moving forward.
Visually, this is unlike anything Lowery has ever done before. While not only being the director and writer, he also edits the story with inventive panache to give you a feeling that this adventure is unlike any you’ve seen before. The ravishing cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo is of bold colors in which each destination feels so distinctive yet familiar within this world. And with each set piece and camera turn, you get the sense of how epic the scale of this production was for the filmmaking team and how much a labor of love with each little detail. This film is the result of when you give a filmmaker the free-range necessary to create something special. It’s no wonder why Lowery was so worried able releasing this movie too soon, as it was scheduled to premiere at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival before the pandemic shut it down. With its methodical pace and dazzling ambition, you could see a world where it doesn’t glue together in the final product. But the delayed release allowed him extra time to tinker away at this beast, crafting a monumental cinematic achievement.
The Green Knight is the culmination of a decade’s worth of entertaining, thought provoking work coming together to create a defining achievement within Lowery’s career. It’s a magnificent showcase on how you can take a tale that’s as old as time and bring a fresh, inventive perspective to it that feels wholly original. A triumph on every level, and does the most important thing a movie can do; make you want to see it again as soon as possible, and see what Lowery has next up his sleeve.
A24 will release The Green Knight only in theaters on July 30.