As the movies that were originally scheduled to be released a year ago continue to finally make their way to the big screen this year, writer/director David Lowery’s latest might be one of the most hotly anticipated of the bunch. A twist on the medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” Lowery’s The Green Knight is a dark and fantastical take on the morality tale that may make you wish you took a Medieval Studies course in college, while also encouraging you to brush up on your Arthurian legends. While it’s certainly a refreshing cinematic treat and a beautiful reprieve from the green screen and CGI studio films in theaters right now, it’s not going to be for everyone.
For those unfamiliar with the poem, The Green Knight tells the tale of Sir Gawain (Dev Patel, who gives a stellar performance), the nephew of King Arthur who strives to become a knight. Despite this want, Gawain does indulge in some not so noble behaviors and has yet to have a chance to prove himself to King Arthur. Well lucky for him, his chance finally arrives in the form of a mysterious Green Knight who challenges the members of Arthur’s court to a fatal game on Christmas day. Gawain takes on this challenge, ultimately binding himself to the knight and agreeing to meet him one year later in a far-off chapel to finish what the knight started.
While for most movies it’s better to go in not knowing much about the subject matter, it might benefit viewers to do a quick Google search before checking out The Green Knight. It’s hard to imagine being able to enjoy the film without knowing the basics of the mythology and original poem. The setup in the beginning is simple enough, but when it starts getting into the intricacies of the tale and Lowery’s own additions to it, it can be difficult to discern what the point of all of it is. Yes, there is a clear lesson from the original poem and Lowery (more or less) sticks to that lesson, but of course he can’t help but put his own deliberately unsatisfying spin on it. The beginning of Gawain’s journey to confront the Green Knight a year later is intriguing, but the story loses a bit of momentum towards the final act when Gawain comes across Joel Edgerton’s character.
There’s no denying Lowery’s skill as a filmmaker. His impressive list of credentials is proof enough of his adeptness at the technical aspects of filmmaking, and he surely puts those skills to good use here. Attempting to describe some of the visuals would be futile as they really should just be seen to be believed. The innovation and scope of it all makes The Green Knight worth seeing on the big screen, and most people would benefit from a second viewing as there is quite a lot to unpack from it thematically and narratively. But what might keep The Green Knight from connecting with most audiences is its purposeful obscurity. While it may just come down to being his own personal style as opposed to being totally intentional, Lowery clearly prefers to stray away from straight forward storytelling. Of course, it’s often better not to spell out everything for the audience, but when your intention is to obscure or keep vital information hidden away that would help to make sense of the overall story and message, it comes off more disingenuous than innovative.
It can be admirable when a filmmaker cares about putting together his own unique vision ahead of pleasing an audience. More often than not, those tend to be the better films. In the case of The Green Knight, there’s no question of Lowery’s devotion to the craft of filmmaking. What does come into question is his reverence for cohesive storytelling. While the visual and technical aspects of the film are all incredibly on point, The Green Knight at times feels more like a one night only cinematic experience as opposed to an actual movie that will stand the test of time. That may be completely fine with some people, but a lot of viewers will leave wishing more from the story, and at the end of the day you can’t fault them for that.
The Green Knight is out in US cinemas this weekend and is awaiting a UK release date.