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"The Green Knight" (2021) Review

Sydney is an aspiring film critic and recent graduate from American University where she studied Criminology and Data Science.

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Warning: contains spoilers for The Green Knight.

Imagine a tale of a young knight, the noble nephew of the great King Arthur. He is known for his chivalry and integrity, and prides himself on it. One New Year's Eve, he is put to a challenge by a mysterious foe to test his courage and valor. He accepts it confidently, but he finds himself failing the trials and tribulations set before him and doing things that the traditional knighthood would not consider honorable. The knight feels overwhelming shame at his perceived inadequacy; his quest is one of self-reflection and humanity. It's a lesson to both him and the kingdom on what it really means to be a virtuous person. For these challenges have proven themselves not to be a test of one single man, but of the chivalric system itself.

This is the story of the 14th century poem "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight," one that has both inspired, and most likely tortured, literature students for centuries. But it is not the story of David Lowery's The Green Knight. It's not even close.

David Lowery’s The Green Knight delivers an ambitiously reconstructed epic of a young, reckless Gawain (Dev Patel) who lacks any sort of honor or integrity despite being the nephew of the great King Arthur (Sean Harris). Essentially Camelot’s biggest f-boy, he is more acquainted with brothels than he is with his faith, and the disappointed face of his spell-casting mother (Sarita Choudhury) seems to be one he is quite familiar with. Come one Christmas morn, this lackluster life of his will be reckoned with when he is invited to sit next to his uncle the King and tell him of one of his adventures. Admitting that he has none to tell, Gawain seems to be innocently shameful of this truth and begins to wonder if he, too, can achieve greatness. Mere moments later, his prayers are answered; in thunders the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who presents a challenge, or rather a Christmas game: one of the King's men must lay a blow on him how they wish, but in one year’s time, they must find him in his Green Chapel to receive the same blow in return. Inspired by his recent realization, Gawain volunteers himself to the game and beheads the knight, who picks up the decapitated part of himself and storms off with Ralph Ineson's booming laugh, reminding Gawain that his presence will be required at the Green Chapel next Christmas.

Thus begins Gawain’s epic journey into the countryside to find the home of the mysterious knight. The catch, though, is that this was all orchestrated by his unnamed mother, who is based off of Morgan La Fey, or Gawain’s half-sister in the original text. Using witchcraft, she has summoned the Green Knight, seemingly in an attempt to challenge her son and turn him into an honorable man. This dynamic is hardly explored, but it is the driver for the plot; the dream-like journey that Gawain embarks on is entirely crafted by the witch, and the magical elements of this world that he encounters (spirits, scavengers, giants) all serve a purpose to test Gawain on a given value of the knighthood (generosity, courage, chivalry, etc.). This classic Arthurian format is conceptually the most familiar slice of Lowery’s structure, but its abstract and vague delivery alienates the audience beyond impact.

The most thought-provoking of these tests is that given by the Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Alicia Vikander), who offer Gawain a place to stay when he is tempted to abandon his journey. The condition set is that for everything offered by the Lord, Gawain must conjure up something to give him in exchange. Gawain clearly does not live up to this, part of this shortcoming being his submission to the Lady's seduction. 'You are no knight' she says, reminding him once more of the truth that he was most afraid of before he embarks towards his final destination. Gawain has failed every test, and once he is placed under the axe of The Green Knight, he flinches and pleads. This is what happens in the original text as well, but Lowery ("A Ghost Story") has chosen a different end. After he leaves the chapel, too cowardly to face his fate, Gawain has a vision of his life should he return home. Cloaked in a shame that he must keep to himself, his eventual reign as king is a war-torn and desolate one where he is hated by many and loved by few. He returns to the chapel, bringing us to the ambiguous ending that finally makes clear, two hours later, what Lowery is trying to say; rather than subject himself to a life of shame and inadequacy, Gawain has chosen to die.

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The point is that there is no point, and I am having trouble accepting that as a valorous decision from Lowery. A diversion from a classic narrative structure should be applauded not for simply happening, but for saying something just as profound as the story seems to claim that it is. While narrative intricacies are threaded through each other seamlessly and confidently, Lowery’s concluding moment seems to mirror that of our failed hero; we are hoping for an ending that makes what we just endured all worth it, but are left with the disheartening and confusing realization that this is really all he is trying to say. In the original telling, Gawain is a noble warrior to begin with. But, when he arrives at the Green Chapel, he conceals his magical sash in hopes that he will not need to meet his fate. When his secret is exposed, he goes back to the kingdom and his shame is reconciled with, making the purpose of the story to challenge the traditional concept of what it means to be a noble knight; that even the most tried and true warrior would want to preserve his own life. It is a story of hope and humanity that has endured centuries for a reason. I am not critiquing the act of revisionism, but rather the way The Green Knight has gone about it; one might wonder why Lowery did not just craft a completely new story, as he seems to have taken half of the morals of the original and half of his own, resulting in a meandering thematic journey that can’t decide what it really wants to be.

The Green Knight has all the makings of one of the most phenomenal and profound films of this generation, but just didn't manage to land that final blow. It will be difficult to find complaints about how the movie looks (though I could make one about how dark many scenes were), and there is no denying Lowery's masterful quilting of details and subtleties through the story that he tells. His latest work is a visual and technical marvel that speaks through a dream-like world unlike any that we have seen portrayed on the screen. But one has to wonder if this film would be praised as so revolutionary if it did not look and act like it was.

Maybe I just didn’t get it. More likely, though, David Lowery and I have a very different set of beliefs regarding humanity and just how inevitable the doom and gloom of life is. The insistence in the final sequence that this may be “all there is” is one that fails to bring justice not only to the classic 14th century story, but to his own retelling of it. Lowery's thought that he could twist a 1000-year-old tale of hope into one of his own personal nihilism is a bold one, albeit the same assumption of myself that I am worthy to critique his decision to do so.

Even after a negative experience with The Green Knight, it is almost an objective truth that films so divisive are certainly landmarks of cinema rather than failures of any kind. Lowery dared to deconstruct the hero’s journey in a way that undoubtedly resonated with many viewers, and there is not a correct answer as to whether it was good or bad. It was art, and all meaningful art is a reflection of the person creating it; some people just might not like what they see.

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