David Lowery’s "The Green Knight" is unrelentingly stunning. In its opening scene, the narrator begins to tell the story of Gawain in a raspy, spirited voice while the audience watches his head erupt into flames; it is immediately obvious that "The Green Knight" follows A24’s repertoire of visually striking films. While the visual beauty of the film captivates audiences, "The Green Knight" tells an equally bewitching story as well.
"The Green Knight" is an adaptation of a 14th-century Arthurian legend, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight", written by an anonymous author. Gawain, the son of a witch and the nephew of King Arthur, accepts the challenge of the Green Knight, a menacing tree-humanoid figure: Whoever can land a blow on him wins his green axe. However, they must meet the Green Knight in a years’ time and receive an equal blow in return. From there, the narrative structure appears to follow a traditional hero’s journey—the next year, Gawain embarks on a treacherous journey to meet the mysterious Green Knight in order to gain honor and respect. While the story itself seems to use the traditional markers of the fantasy genre, it turns out to be rather complicated.
"The Green Knight" is not a completely faithful adaptation of the original story, but Lowery chooses to maintain the perplexing quality of most Arthurian tales, making it stand out among other Hollywood retellings. Lowery’s refusal to wrap everything in a neat box or explicitly explain the purpose behind every character’s presence makes for a perversely satisfying watch; the audience gets to consider the meaning of Gawain’s journey with him.
Gawain’s character is another reason the story feels strange, yet refreshing. The trials and tribulations that Gawain encounters on his journey are supposed to forge him into an honorable knight. However, he reveals cowardice and dishonesty more than he shows honor. He obsesses over the idea of becoming legendary. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that Gawain might simply be a bad knight. At one point, while helping a ghostly maiden retrieve her head from the bottom of a lake, he stops to ask her, “If I go in there and find it, what would you offer me in exchange,” to which she replies, “Why would you ever ask me that?” The film is filled with moments in which Gawain appears to have no awareness of what makes a person honorable—heroism and chivalry must be demonstrated over and over, with every choice he makes.
The film does not try to convince the audience of Gawain’s goodness and they are ultimately free to decide whether he actually redeems himself by the end of the movie. This type of moral ambiguity in a protagonist rarely appears in contemporary fantasy. While viewers often see good characters forced to do bad things, or evil characters still worthy of sympathy, someone like Gawain is difficult to understand. He doesn’t quite fit in either category. As a cowardly knight, he is paradoxical; it is a struggle to justify his bad decisions, but it is also a struggle to call him a bad man. Some might find this characterization unsatisfying, but it undeniably forces watchers to grapple with the moral questions of the story more than if the answers were laid out plainly before them. Dev Patel does an excellent job in his portrayal of Gawain, a performance which especially shines in the last act of the film, when tensions are at their highest, and Patel switches between visions of Gawain as a regal King and a man facing death.
"The Green Knight" may not be an easy watch for those looking for escapism, but it is nonetheless unusual, encapsulating, gorgeous, and an unforgettable addition to the fantasy genre.