9/10 Sir Gawain and the Green Knight completes the evolution of distributor A24 from a distribution conglomerate, which simply bought festival films to pump and flip into theaters, to a production company, to a brand and finally to its own genre of film, which this film demonstrates can now be built from the ground up instead of acquired. It’s a critical mass of surface-level similarities and personnel overlap with the production company’s most iconic horror films, particularly The Witch and Hereditary, so much so that it feels like it takes place in the same world as those movies, but applied to a completely different setting and intent.
Well, that’s sort of an illusion. What’s really going on is indie filmmaking has centralized on several distinct conventions, such as naturalistic lighting and color grading, slow pace, similar sound design, Old Testament anxieties and religious obsession, witchcraft and heavy use of blood – and semen! – across several directors and productions, and A24 is such a dominant player in the distribution scene of these movies in particular that they seem to be the ones driving this genre when it’s really a large-scale fashion trend coming organically from a fresh crop of filmmakers. A24 has in turn been dedicated to this crop of filmmakers, including Green Knight writer/director/editor/producer David Lowery, whose breakout critical success A Ghost Story remains an important part of this semi-genre’s iconography.
I didn’t really get A Ghost Story – in hindsight, it went completely over my head – and I don’t really get The Green Knight either, and that’s OK. Most movies I “don’t get” in one sitting feel like there isn’t much there, but there’s clearly a lot to The Green Knight.
6th Century Wales, Christmas Day- As an elderly King Arthur (Sean Harris) implores his knights for a recent tale of their bravery, a tree monster who becomes known as the green knight (Ralph Ineson) appears and challenges any one of them to a peculiar game. If one of Arthur’s knights can land a blow against him, the green knight would yield his axe, which appears to have restorative powers over nature, but this comes with the promise that, one year later, the same knight will seek the green knight out to return the axe and receive the same blow. Arthur’s nephew Gawain (Dev Patel), who has not yet been knighted, accepts and beheads the green knight, only to discover that this does not kill him, and Gawain remains bound to his promise.
A year later, Gawain sets out to fulfill his oath across a Welsh wilderness filled with magic, encountering strange scenarios that seem to stem from his own anxieties that test his resolve in ways he’d never prepared for.
The Green Knight is a dreamy and dreary adaptation of a 14th Century poem about Gawain, probably the most famous story about the late-cycle knight of the Round Table, and several other Welsh legends rear their heads as well. Like all adaptations of Arthurian legend, the primary message and creative decisions of the film are in the changes of adaptation, and the more you know about the legends its pulling from, the more sense The Green Knight is going to make – but also the deeper its mysteries. I watched once cold, then did a bit of reading and watched again, and that’s probably the right way to handle it. The film will certainly reward subsequent viewings, but likely with more questions, not with answers.
The Green Knight is being hailed from all corners as the climax of Lowery’s filmography, already five films strong in less than a decade, which synthesizes the themes of his prior work – his other movies are other texts that will probably help The Green Knight feel more consistent. It’s cemented him as a highly dream-oriented filmmaker focused on recontextualizing mythology and telling stories across great expanses of time highly reminiscent of David Lynch, another top-level filmmaker whose work I don’t appreciate as much as many. Lynch would probably welcome the comparison, he’s one of the people hailing The Green Knight as Lowery’s opus.
My chief frustration watching it is the opacity of Gawain’s motivation and the general smokiness of the film’s core conflict. There are several reasons that could be offered for Gawain to cut off the green knight’s head despite having been told he will receive the same blow, and this is one of the principal ways the tale can vary in retelling, but in The Green Knight, it is not explicitly clear. In addition to the inciting incident not getting solid ground to stand on, the dangers Gawain faces on the road are completely unrelated to his quest, at least on the surface. Many of them seem to be manifestations of his subconscious to one degree or another, but that only makes his mind more important to understand.
The narrative is so ethereal that I start to wonder if film was the correct format for Lowery’s version of this story. He seems to have forged a new myth, endlessly open to reinterpretation despite being in the inherently heavily detailed text of a film, rather than put his unique spin on it. It’s dreamlike when I want it to be solid and absent entirely when I want it to be dreamlike, as if Lowery is speaking in an entirely different film language than I’m used to.
Which I guess is another way of calling it a masterpiece.