By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton
Written and directed by David Lowery
Among other things, THE GREEN KNIGHT is the most gorgeous-to-look-at genre film since CRIMSON PEAK. And like Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic romance, it employs the trappings of horror while not existing entirely in that world. It’s a similar approach, on a much more lavish level, to that adopted by writer/director David Lowery on his previous, deeply affecting A GHOST STORY, and THE GREEN KNIGHT is a variation on that theme. A GHOST STORY focused on a man dealing with his own death in its aftermath; this dark medieval fantasy follows a man as he confronts his impending demise.
Adapting the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery laces his movie with imagery both beautiful and horrific, all of it rapturously filmed, while bringing his own sensibilities to the familiar milieu surrounding King Arthur. Here, that monarch (Sean Harris) is not named, and during Christmas revelries, he hopes to build bridges with his nephew Gawain (Dev Patel), who is here presented as a hedonistic ne’er-do-well with the seeds of greatness in him. In a powerful early scene, he seizes a chance to prove himself when the Green Knight enters the king’s court. A towering being with treelike physiognomy and the wonderful deep-raspy voice of THE WITCH’s Ralph Ineson, he offers a challenge to the assembled knights and noblemen: Any one of them can strike him a single blow, with the proviso that in a year’s time, that person must trek to a Green Chapel, where the Knight will inflict the same wound. Gawain steps forward, delivers what would seem to be a fatal strike–but the Knight isn’t put down so easily, and Gawain is now fated to travel to the Chapel the following Christmas to face his fate.
Right from the start, we’re immersed in a world of yore with touches of the fantastic. Lowery has assembled a team with roots in modern independent horror fare, such as cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (YOU’RE NEXT, V/H/S) and production designer Jade Healy (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, THE SACRAMENT), and turned them loose in a period setting, with ominously opulent results. (The group also includes STRANGER THINGS costume designer Malgosia Turzanska and GAME OF THRONES prosthetics creator Barrie Gower, with the latter making the Knight an instantly iconic character.) It helps that the filmmakers discovered remarkable Irish locations to shoot on, from lush forests to forbidding castles, to the point where you want to step right into the movie alongside Gawain, even if you wouldn’t necessarily want to share some of his experiences.
When his time is up and our hero must set off for the Chapel, he enters a series of environments that test his mettle, his survival skills and his manhood, encountering both human and supernatural beings. The former can be worse than the latter, as Gawain finds after he meets a young highwayman (THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER’s Barry Keoghan) in an impressive, long single-take scene. Later, he winds up at the castle of a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Alicia Vikander, who also plays Gawain’s lady friend back home), who will put his honor to the test. And all along, the Green Knight looms in his future like a threatening shadow.
A love for the era and the possibilities of presenting it suffuses THE GREEN KNIGHT, in which Lowery plumbs emotions as intimate as those explored in A GHOST STORY on a much wider canvas. Clearly enthralled with old-fashioned storytelling (as when we see Gawain celebrated in a puppet show), the writer/director also ventures into the surreal and elliptical, with moments of catch-your-breath expressionism. Beyond the contributions of the visual artisans noted above, the movie is unimaginable without Daniel Hart’s score and Johnny Marshall’s sound design, which create a sonic atmosphere of heightened nature, romantic questing and off-kilter menace. Patel, never better in a role that often has him alone with his conflicted thoughts, heads a cast who inhabit their parts and Lowery’s world to the manner born.
THE GREEN KNIGHT is one of the true transformative movie experiences of the year, demanding and rewarding the choice to see it on the biggest screen possible. On a reportedly modest budget, Lowery and co. have demonstrated remarkable ambitions, and wholeheartedly achieved them. “Why greatness? Is goodness not enough?” Gawain’s paramour asks him early in the film, and it’s clear that was not even a question for his director.