' ' Cinema Romantico: The Green Knight

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Green Knight

There’s a scene in David Lowery’s second feature film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” when Bob (Casey Affleck) explains to Sweetie (Nate Parker) how he escaped prison. It’s less an explanation, really, than a tall tale about how he had always planned to one day walk right out the prison’s front door because he’s got a greater purpose, see. Sweetie lets this flight of fancy drag on and then, when it finally ends, sits with it for a second. He says: “I heard you jumped off a work truck.” It’s hilarious, in its quiet way, and suggests how Lowery is fascinated by myths and their oft attendant b.s. Lowery followed that up by retelling Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon”, taking the mystical flying monster seriously by fusing a mythical world with our own natural world. So, it’s no surprise that Lowery has wound his way to the most durable and sizable of all myths – Camelot. “The Green Knight” is adapted from a 14th Century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Anonymous, one I will leave to the medievalists and poets to explain, and simply observe that Lowery seems to have chosen this material to dissect and then dismiss the grandeur of myths as matter-of-factly as Sweetie shrugging off Bob’s.

As “The Green Knight” opens, Gawain (Dev Patel) awakens in a brothel where he has spent Christmas Eve with Essel (Alicia Vikander). Patel’s loose-limbed physicality in this sequence and the ensuing one at home, tripping and falling in the brothel just as he falls into bed at home, rhymes with Lowery’s roving camera to heighten Gawain’s careless air, painting him as something akin to a spoiled Camelot rich kid. Indeed, at a Christmas celebration that night, King Arthur (Sean Harris) summons Gawain, his nephew, forward, asking to hear a story. Patel allows his heretofore cocky countenance to virtually dissolve before Royalty, as if he is not worthy, which he essentially admits he is not, confessing he has no story to tell like one would confess a sin. Lowery, however, intercuts Gawain’s confession with a scene of his own mother (Sarita Choudhury) weaving a spell, evoking the idea that she is conjuring up a story out of thin air to make him the nobleman he is not. In short order, The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) enters King Arthur’s court and lays down a challenge for anyone to land a blow against him so long as he is allowed to return a successful blow one year hence at his home, The Green Chapel. Gawain accepts.

Looking like if Tolkien’s Treebeard was designed by Carlo Rambaldi, The Green Knight itself, in the special effects and sound design, is otherworldly, yes, but distinctly in the room with other characters, epitomizing Lowery’s world-building approach. If mystical movies tend to lean hard toward fantasy or trying too hard to render the mythical real, like Antoine Fuqua’s “King Arthur” (2004), “The Green Knight” creates a dark, grimy world where magic still exists, rendering the supernatural as terrifying as it is wonderful, something truly beyond normal understanding. Surely The Green Knight is beyond Gawain’s. Though beheading his foe becomes the advent of Gawain’s folktale, the scene itself feels like anything but mythmaking, more like a magic realist version of Printing the Legend. Patel’s manner in this sequence is less heroism than nervous determination giving way to an unhinged, indignant bloodlust when The Green Knight kneels, patiently waiting to receive the blow, like the callow Gawain is ticked off because he can’t figure this supernatural creature. And when the Green Knight simply picks up his own head, says he’ll see Gawain next Christmas, and laughs, that’s not a myth before you in Gawain; that’s just a man, taken aback and terrified.

A year later, Gawain’s myth has burgeoned, brought home in a puppet show for kids reenacting The Green Knight’s beheading, but it has hardly strengthened his resolve to meet the moment. Essel wants him to forgo his journey and marry her instead, espousing the goodness over greatness, though the way she squeezes the corners of his mouth to move lips in faux agreement humorously renders him a person unable to even express what he wants either way. It’s only after Arthur essentially kicks him out of the house and tells him to get a job by way of King-ish poetry – “I do not know of any man who has not marched up to greet death before his time” – that Gawain reluctantly sets out. 

If this sounds like an extraordinary amount of plot, it is merely set-up, as much of the movie is consumed by Gawain’s journey across a vast, empty, uninviting landscape to meet his fate. A shot of Gawain sitting before a fire at night suggests the American West as much as Medieval England, evoking how “The Green Knight” comes to feel less like any sword and sorcerer epic than an Acid Western. That is partially because rather than gradually build to its Green Chapel showdown, “The Green Knight” turns slow and elliptical, using Gawain’s various encounters along the way to question backwards notions of honor this whole quest ostensibly elicits and sexual temptation that sheds light on his more craven desires despite an imminent higher calling. And it is partially because, well, while Gawain does not drop acid, he does ingest shrooms, portraying what follows as both a literal and figurative trip, the denouement nothing short of an epic vision, flash-forwarding far into the future. It’s an indelible sequence flirting with greatness, just as Gawain himself does, achieving the grandeur that comes from a myth granting immortality even as that immortality is wickedly undressed as the only thing that matters.

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