After watching David Lowery’s “The Green Knight,” I’m convinced it’s possible for a film to have a soul but no heart. To watch “The Green Knight” is to be immersed in a beautifully constructed poem with no sense of anything beyond itself.
Like many a movie as of late, “The Green Knight” is steeped in the dark roots of many of our most cherished fairy tales. And make no mistake, the stories of King Arthur and his daring heroes, including the poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” the film repackages, are very much fairy tales imbued with a bit more realism. That spirit, with its lofty ideals of courtly honor and chivalry, may fuel “The Green Knight,” but its true inspiration is another film inspired by the repressive nightmares of England’s rebellious descendants – Robert Eggers’s “The Witch.” I almost expected to see Black Phillip prance across the screen, especially after Kate Dickie showed up as the aged Queen to a similarly weary King Arthur (Sean Harris).
That doesn’t last long, because “The Green Knight” is a strictly adult fairy tale in every sense, with Gawain (Dev Patel) proving to know his way around a brothel full of youthful, disrobed women. It’s a sign of the times to come, since women aren’t characters here as creatures, the bearers of forces that would impede the true object of desire…a man’s traditional stoicism. With such a goal, any kind of emotion, or horror of horrors, sex, can only be an obstacle to the hero’s quest, with love acting as an outright handicap.
Gawain’s quest not only isn’t very interesting, it could’ve been easily avoided. When the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) of the title shows up, he offers a game, but one with high stakes for anyone choosing to play. He invites anyone to strike a blow, promising to return the favor in a year’s time. Arthur’s nephew Gawain is the only one who dares to accept his invitation, quickly cutting off the Knight’s head, thus implicitly agreeing to seek out the Knight next year so he can behead Gawain in turn, since decapitation proves less than fatal. Because…honor? Or perhaps penance for a life of drinking and general carousing.
This is the Middle Ages though, a time when, according to general tradition, supernatural forces were just beginning to feel humanity’s boot on their necks. If the resulting journey does reveal anything, it’s that Gawain is even less bright than he appears, extending trust to those who all but shout that betrayal is imminent. It is here too, that Lowery shows his true limitations, trying like hell to include a variety of female characters who prove to be merely the sum of their male oppressors at best, and their anxieties at worst. It’s hard to say who gets the worst of it, Gawain’s nameless mother (Sarita Choudhury), whose motivations and witchly powers are never explained, or Alicia Vikander, who has a double role as Essel, the prostitute with a heart of gold, and an unnamed temptress.
Every film is going to be a kind of reflection of its creator, but a creator without empathy can only hope to create a mirror, and even an incredible actor like Patel can’t overcome this. He’s meant to be there as a kind of modern gesture in a meticulously recreated medieval setting, a declaration that it isn’t only white men who can embody such lofty heroic roles. But there’s nothing to see beyond him, no meaning to the others he encounters along the way, a world where green is supposedly the ultimate threat which rules all, failing to realize that the true peril is that color and all it symbolizes leaving our world forever.
It is Lowery, not Patel, who is to blame for this Gawain being a very far cry from the character I first encountered as a bookish child in a retelling of the poem “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle.” That story became a favorite because it struck me as an empowering variation on “Beauty and the Beast,” wherein a woman who was cursed with ugliness saved Gawain through her bravery and intelligence and was rewarded by wedding Gawain, who returned the favor by giving her agency over her own life and breaking the spell completely.
And this shortcoming of Lowery’s is becoming more evident. As my friend Stephen Tronicek put it, “I’ve definitely reached a point where the things that I initially liked about Lowery’s work have become shrouded in the quiet sickness of his extreme masculinity, but there’s enough in the movies to keep me watching them.”
Lowery may actually be well on his way to becoming the next Quentin Tarantino – beloved by film bros due to his filmmaking prowess, but who may well come under increasing criticism for his inability to appeal to what is becoming a very narrow slice of a moviegoing audience.