THE GREEN KNIGHT (David Lowery). 132 minutes. In theatres Friday (July 30). Rating: NNN
The tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written sometime in the 14th century, by an author whose name has been lost to history. It’s been altered and reimagined over and over, but the core of it is always the same: a man enters into a bargain with supernatural forces, and must hold up his end of it, despite knowing that doing so means certain death.
In the original text, Gawain is a knight of the Round Table, who to amuse King Arthur accepts the challenge of a visiting knight, dressed entirely in green, to land any blow he sees fit – so long as Gawain accepts that one year hence, he will journey to a place called the Green Chapel, and receive the same blow himself. Gawain decapitates the green knight, which would seem to invalidate the bargain… except that the green knight picks up his head, reminds Gawain of their deal, and departs into the night – leaving Gawain to contemplate the fate he’s just written for himself.
It’s a story about accepting responsibility for one’s actions, and that metaphor is clearly what’s attracted writer/director David Lowery to the material. His version of the story, titled simply The Green Knight, moves the confrontation to Christmas (a time of gifts and good cheer, though Camelot’s grim, gray mise-en-scene suggests otherwise) and reimagines Gawain as a brash young nobleman, played by Dev Patel: not yet a knight, and determined to prove himself to his royal uncle Arthur. It provides a context for Gawain’s cruelty to the green knight, who’s now a clearly mystical creature: our hero is not just naïve but callow. Honestly, it’d be hard to even call him a hero.
Except that Gawain is very much the centre of this narrative, and so Lowery follows him on his journey to enlightenment, crafting an episodic tale of Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel and what happens along the way. It’s artfully realized, expansively told and strangely hollow.
After the mesmerizing sadness of A Ghost Story – in which a shot of Casey Affleck standing under a bedsheet could convey an almost cosmic sense of loss and grief – Lowery’s latest experiment in slow cinema strives for similar gravitas but doesn’t quite reach it; the visual details are exquisite, but the myth being told is so slight and simple that expanding it into a movie that runs over two hours snuffs out its spark, as Lowery adds new complications and digressions that serve to overcomplicate the story or negate its meaning entirely.
Still, Patel’s performance as a naïve young man forced to contemplate his own mortality far too soon is one of his best, and his co-stars Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman and Joel Edgerton all understand the spell Lowery is working to cast. But it’s a spell too delicate to sustain itself.
I expect The Green Knight will live on as a midnight movie and a stoner classic… but taken straight, it’s a little much. It’d make a splendid coffee-table book, though.