Medieval stories are tales of noble knights, men who uphold the highest standards of honor while protecting their loved ones from the evils of the world. Their feats in battle are second to none, each knight a force of nature that dares to be reckoned with. David Lowery takes on a knight’s story, yet of a different kind, in his newest film, an adaptation of the 14th century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Gawain (Dev Patel) is a nephew to King Arthur (Sean Harris), and the opening to The Green Knight will tell you his relation to Arthur lies purely in blood rather than in courage. Gawain wakes up from a night of decadence, and his mom pesters him about when he is going to make something of his life and become a knight – apart from the hopeful knighthood, he isn’t too unlike youth today. On Christmas, he attends a feast at the Round Table and King Arthur invites Gawain forward to take the seat beside him. Arthur asks Gawain to tell him a story about himself, though Gawain has none to tell. None to tell so far, the queen notes. The queen’s words couldn’t have been more prescient as Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury) summons the titular Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) who challenges the knights to a battle.
As a reward for defeating him, the winning knight would receive the Green Knight’s axe as a prize; however, in one year’s time, the knight must travel to the Green Chapel to receive an equivalent blow from the Green Knight. Gawain, proclaiming he is not a knight, rises to accept the Green Knight’s challenge anyways and King Arthur lends Gawain the sword Excalibur to face the Green Knight. Rather than fight however, the Green Knight presents his neck. With utter recklessness, Gawain decapitates the Green Knight. A moment passes before the Green Knight takes his head and rides out on horseback, “one year hence” the decapitated head speaks.
And so Gawain’s tale spreads through the land as the year passes, Gawain’s name now tied to honor and strength as he decides to uphold his promise to travel to the Green Chapel. Gawain’s impending death weighs on us over the course of The Green Knight – watching a man journey to his death is no light endeavor. Lowery makes this journey entrancing through Gawain’s dangerous and eerie encounters with man and the supernatural alike. Gawain’s journey tests his resilience as his horse is stolen, and Gawain bears the Green Knight’s axe over his shoulder just as Atlas carried the world on his. Each step closer to death is heavier. Apart from Gawain’s insistence to make it to the Green Chapel on time, we’re shown that Gawain has yet to become worthy of admiration and is not living up to the stories told about him. He is not strong. He is not virtuous. He is not a knight.
Much like A Ghost Story, The Green Knight is compelling in its consideration of life and death. In David Lowery’s adaptation of Gawain’s story, Gawain is forced to weigh the value of his life and decide if it is more bearable to uphold his promise to the Green Knight or to live a life of dishonor for failing to receive the Green Knight’s fatal blow.
The Green Knight was originally scheduled to premiere at South by Southwest on March 16, 2020. Needless to say, that release was delayed to fall of this year, providing Lowery the luxury of time to re-edit his film. Though it’s difficult to measure the benefit of this additional work, I’d be hard-pressed to imagine The Green Knight’s hypnotic sequences weren’t enhanced by additional time in the editing chair. Capturing the dark green tones of Ireland and the medieval setting couldn’t have been more immersive, and Lowery’s film begs to be seen in theaters or at least on the biggest screen available.