‘The Green Knight’ Journeys Into a Hallucinatory Fable That Lingers Like a Dream

We grow up hearing fairy tales and myths as distant, magical happenings in places too fantastical to contemplate. “The Green Knight” feels so vivid and real you can almost smell the dew of its forests. Director David Lowery has taken the 14th century English poem, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” and “adapted” it into something wonderfully strange. Lowery belongs to a current generation of directors who want to channel a mood based on visual poetics. Their work tends to be more about atmosphere than even the plot itself. Lowery certainly achieves an enrapturing rhythm with “The Green Knight,” but the subtext is just as rich. One could easily sit back and enjoy the texture of this film, but like many symbols or religious icons, there are worthy secrets beneath the images. 

The tale begins on Christmas as King Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) throw a merry banquet with their knights sitting around the famous round table. Sitting by the king is his nephew, Sir Gawain (Dev Patel). After Arthur makes a grand speech, the proceedings are interrupted when the hall’s vast doors open and a strange figure appears, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), whose physique looks like a man carved out of a tree. The Knight makes a proposition to the other sword-wielders in attendance. He will let one of them face him and strike him down, but in a year that same man must then let the Knight deliver an equal blow. Full of gusto and the desire to be known, Gawain steps up to the challenge and promptly beheads the Green Knight. But the visitor is far from dead. He picks up his head and rides away laughing. A year later Gaiwan has achieved local fame. Even puppet shows celebrate his exploits. He gets free pints and has a devoted (and much sharper) peasant lover (Alicia Vikander), but he knows what’s approaching. Once winter arrives, Gawain decides that to preserve his honor, he must venture out to find the Green Chapel where the Knight resides, and meet his fate.

What Lowery has made with “The Green Knight” is a unique hybrid. This film is part folklore and part cinematic hallucination. His screenplay has an acute sense of how folktales function as outgrowths of culture and deeper human questions. Some purists might take issue with the way he takes license with the source material, such as making Arthur and Guinevere older (the author of the poem remains unknown to historians, anyway). Yet this is how folktales work, they get passed down for generations with new tweaks being added all the time. A filmmaker’s job is to find the movie hidden inside the text. Lowery finds an entire world to build, but inspired by history. Unlike some earlier, though excellent, takes on Arthurian legend, such as “Excalibur” and the 1998 miniseries “Merlin.” Lowery doesn’t aim to make it all look fantastical or unreal. Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo frames shots like medieval tapestries or portraits, but with light that suggests a world lit only by fire. This is not a comfortable existence, where even a king like Arthur can only bemoan that he has a toothache, while twitching the tooth with a crack in the sound design. Small details like a public puppet play about Gawain and the Green Knight add to the sense we’re back in time.

Lowery is part of a group of directors that includes Robert Eggers and Ari Aster, who have propelled a new kind of postmodern cinema that tackles old genres with an ambient style mixed with starkness. These are not filmmakers who are into rapid editing, but leisurely, floating cameras borrowing from Andrei Tarkovsky or Stanley Kubrick. Lowery has brought this style to stories like “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” about outlaw lovers on the run, and “Ghost Story,” a transcendental drama about death. His 2018 farewell for Robert Redford, “The Old Man & the Gun,” was more energetic and fun, with a ‘70s style to its look. “The Green Knight” is his first magnum opus, divided into chapters that come together to form a grand journey the audience becomes immersed in. As Gawain treks on his quest for the Green Chapel, he comes across moments and people that can feel like mirages or nightmares. A young boy cheerfully follows the aspiring knight through a battlefield strewn with corpses, before helping two thieves rob Gawain. A fox begins to follow him, becoming a travel companion through vast rivers and valleys. For food he eats mushrooms he finds in a field, which send him on a trip full of brimstone visions. There are giants in this tale, and rural castles where a strange lord (Joel Edgerton) likes to hunt and make cryptic proposals, while his wife (also played by Vikander) offers magical protection against the Green Knight, but might expect physical comfort in return.

As Lowery presents these medieval, picaresque details through his own vision, he also subverts old horse and sword clichés. For Dev Patel this is a milestone performance, showing a depth and range easily lost in his other roles. At times you wouldn’t even know this is the hero from “Slumdog Millionaire.” He turns Gawain into the polar opposite of a macho action hero. With Lowery he interprets the aspiring legend as a man hiding his real fears about what his quest truly entails. Gawain wants the glory, the way people today want celebrity, and is willing to face a certain death because honor demands it. It’s not like everyone simply clinks beer mugs and cheers him on. His lover back home reasonably wonders what’s the point of all this. “The Green Knight” could be about those who worship violence or war for its own sake, for its toxic, deceptively romantic allure. Gawain did not have to face the Green Knight on that Christmas in Camelot. Maybe that is the point. Only a fool thinks senseless violence proves one’s strength. This film is set in a world where magic is very real and half-tree half-man knights slumber in the woods, but there are no rainbows or mythical glow to the scenery. Death and bloodshed are still very real, as we see later in scenes of raging wars and women in labor. The music by Daniel Hart is never heroic, but melancholic and ghostly, with ballads sung as if the 14th century never ended.

The great director Luis Buñuel once described the Middle Ages as “an era that is both barbarous and delicate.” Such is the world “The Green Knight” evokes with such fierce detail. The last moment of the film is vicious, and even slightly comic. Before any blades are unsheathed, we get the delicate image of the Green Knight in his domain, peacefully slumbering and one with nature, like a pagan allegory. This is a film of elegance and dreamlike effect. You have to allow yourself to be carried away by it, without expecting the razzle dazzle of a Ridley Scott production. Like the novels of Peter Vansittart, Lowery retains what is poetic about a folk tale, but grounds it firmly in mud-stained reality. This is probably how life really was all those centuries ago, and how the myths passed down to us were born. “The Green Knight” goes on a cinematic quest that for the viewer means finding more than mere entertainment. 

The Green Knight” releases July 30 in theaters nationwide.