David Lowery’s elliptical and sensational adaptation of the 14th century epic poem “Sir Gawain & The Green Knight” is not only a true cinematic masterwork, but one of the more invigorating adaptations of classic literature this side of Hamlet. A true imaginative piece of filmmaking that digs deep within the philosophies found in the ancient tale, The Green Knight’s hypnotizing descent into honor and morality feels as timeless as the text that inspired it.
A meticulously rendered odyssey of self-worth and nobility, The Green Knight is the kind of singular vision that only comes around once in a great fortnight. As the nephew to the one-and-only King Arthur (Sean Harris), the cocky, yet eager Gawain (a never better Dev Patel) finds himself thrust in a medieval game of fate as the mysterious Green Knight (voiced by the great Ralph Ineson), a living creature that appears part tree, part demonic entity, arrives for a challenge. The challenge calls for an opponent to attempt to strike down the Knight, with the deal that if struck down, that opponent must come face the Knight one year later with the roles reversed. Having beheaded the Knight will alarming ease, the Knight picks up his own severed head, gives the cryptic warning “one year hence” and rides off cackling into the wind. Gawain, looking for purpose as he’s surrounded by the valor of those before him and filled with the promise of potential doom, makes the long trek to fulfill his end of the bargain.
The Green Knight is more of a deconstruction of the traditional hero’s journey than it is a complete retelling. Gawain’s eagerness to become a legend in his own right leads him down the ultimate path of self-discovery and what it truly means to find purpose in the world. Dev Patel’s irresistible charisma is utilized to the fullest as Gawain also serves as our conduit into the vast, extraordinary world of The Green Knight.
Along the journey, Gawain encounters a host of other creatures that includes ghosts, giants, a trusty fox and other ne’er-do-wellers that will make the already-treacherous journey even more deadly. With each new encounter, Gawain finds himself tested, not only in his strength, but his will, morality and even his sense of purpose. The knight not only exists as the ultimate foe Gawain must vanquish in his quest for honor, but as the beacon to prove himself worthy as a legend that he so desires to become.
It would be too easy to describe writer/director David Lowery’s approach as something along the lines of Tarkovsky meets Excalibur, but that wouldn’t due justice by Lowery’s complex lens. The precisely-detailed nature of Lowery’s vision, one filled with rich mythology, never ceases to amaze. The expansive world that both Lowery, and his exquisite team of technological wizards, creates is the kind of imagination-igniting fever dream that electrifies the senses.
This is a trippy fantasy world that feels as vibrant and lived-in as any classic Hollywood epic. Lowery crafts a sense of grandeur that’s sorely missing from most modern-day blockbusters with quadruple the budget. Lowery’s grand canvass serves as not just a feast for the eyes, but full of meticulously layered imagery that often says more than any line of dialogue could. His blend of dark, haunting visuals that contrasts with rich, luscious beauty is practically incomparable among his contemporaries.
Exploring similar themes to his 2017 singular masterpiece, A Ghost Story, Lowery further contemplates legacy, and what it means to be remembered. As Gawain searches for a larger sense of purpose, Lowery feels like he too is searching for similar answers. If our story is not told 100 years after we’re gone, have we served a meaningful purpose? What does it mean to be remembered if we ourselves don’t recognize our worth? What have we done that seems worthy of remembrance? The Green Knight’s challenging philosophies feel closer to Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, but with the visual panache of The Lord of the Rings.
Gawain’s compelling journey reaches a turning point in the transcendent climactic chapter that repurposes the journey at hand into something much deeper and moving beyond description.
The Green Knight is not the kind of film that one cannot simply shake. David Lowery gives the classic story new life in a surreal, rousing and challenging new vision that’s as densely layered as it beautiful to behold. While words may only do so much after just one viewing, the overwhelming experience Lowery crafts is one that is sure to leave a lasting legacy.