When I went to see The Green Knight I expected a basic take on an Arthurian legend somewhere on the spectrum between Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. But in the opening shot - as Dev Patel stares pensively into the camera with flames engulfing his crown adorned head - it becomes clear this is not going to be your average medieval movie.
If you’ve ever read a 600-year-old Arthurian legend, you know they don’t remotely resemble modern stories. They’re illogical, with mounds of exposition mixed with unexplained events that happen without cause or bearing on the overall story. Truly myths and legends, each one feels like it has gone through a game of tavern telephone, spoken over and over before someone ever set it down on paper. Over the past 100 years, directors and writers have taken it as their duty to translate these tales into versions that comfortably fulfill modern viewers' expectations. Stories with conventional plots, beautiful princesses, and grandiose sword fights. Director David Lowery doesn’t care about fulfilling modern expectations. He doesn’t care about holding the viewer's hand or translating the source material of The Green Knight into something easily consumable. The result? A film that felt fresh, and more importantly, confident in its own originality.
PSA: If you expect The Green Knight to be the chivalrous tale of a heroic figure, prepare to be disappointed. Gawain, played by Dev Patel, is not a knight. He is the young, careless, and underachieving nephew of King Arthur. Introduced to us as he wakes up in the bed of a woman and rushes to “make merry” at the Christmas celebration with his uncle, the film immediately asserts Gawain as a well-liked slacker with a penchant for drinking and mischief.
So, when the titular Green Knight - a humanish creature with skin like tree bark - rides horseback into Arthur’s hall and challenges any brave soul to a simple game, Gawain sees a shortcut to gaining glory and immediately accepts. The rules are simple: Gawain can land any blow he wants on the Green Knight, with one caveat. Exactly a year later, Gawain must ride to the Green Chapel and take the same blow. Gawain, genius that he is, beheads the Green Knight to stop the game right there. The Green Knight calmly picks up his head, laughs maniacally, and rides away, leaving Gawain with a lot of thinking to do - and exactly one year to do it.
The film then jumps to a year later, when Gawain must ride to the Green Chapel and fulfill his side of the bargain. With a video game-like structure, most of the film follows Gawain through various side quests on the way to his destination. Here is where Lowery leans into the unconventional storytelling of the source material. He plays with time, fills frames with vibrant colors, and adds in random events that feel thematically important without affecting the overall plot. Even though the side quests don’t have much bearing on the overall story, Lowery binds them together by making them meditations on the same questions, questions which hover over the entirety of the movie. Does keeping your word and the concept of honor matter? Do you hold your own course through a land where people have abandoned all morals, or join the throng? And does what we do in the dark matter if it never comes to light?
The Green Knight succeeds by asking these questions without making the film feel as if it's teaching you a lesson. Additionally, Lowery’s creative use of time and color never distracts from the main story. The plot holds keeps your attention and the stylistic choices act like road signs emphasizing symbolic moments and points of character development.
The other major factor in the film’s success are the performances of Dev Patel and Alicia Vikander. Dev Patel perfectly balances Gawain’s character between the classic valiant medieval hero and an insecure and vulnerable young man. As misfortunes during his journey and trepidations over his final destination break Gawain down, Patel adjusts his performance accordingly, going from brash confidence to tearful anxiety. His co-star Alicia Vikander, who plays a common woman and romantic interest, evens out Dev Patel’s charisma and insecurity by bringing a lighthearted and confident aura to every scene they share.
If I had to make a criticism, it’s that Gawain’s journey to the Green Chapel drags. It’s not enough to take you out of the film or start checking your watch, but by the time he reaches the end of his trail I was starting to feel antsy for the finish. However, the ending – which would be an unforgivable sin to give even the slightest details on – is easily described with one word. Perfect. It throws all the questions the film has asked into the forefront while refusing to give any answers. It’s the type of film ending that will keep you up at night, wondering what it means, or if it means anything at all. If you come to the end of The Green Knight and don’t feel an emotional, gut-wrenching desire to start it over again, we must have watched different movies.