REVIEW: “The Green Knight” (2021)

Few movies on the 2021 docket have captured the anticipation and curiosity of a segment of film fans quite like “The Green Knight”. This fresh retelling pulled from the rich and complex Arthurian mythology comes from writer-director David Lowery, an indie visionary who proves himself to be just the right person for the material. Surrounded by an almost deafening buzz from certain circles, “The Green Knight” is a savory feast sure to tantalize the taste buds of arthouse crowds while leaving some casual moviegoers frustrated and hungry.

“The Green Knight” is a dark and sometimes twisted medieval fantasy based on the 14th century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”. Or as the film itself states it, “the chivalric romance by anonymous”. Lowery puts his own unconventional spin on the material, focusing more on imagery, mood and atmosphere than dialogue, character building and traditional storytelling. It results in an eye-popping puzzle box of a movie with much to say about humanity, self-discovery, honor and what it means to be a legend. But gleaning its meaning through Lowery’s artful yet sometimes muddy lens can be a chore.

Who better to lead this beguiling dark fantasy twist than Dev Patel who has excelled at playing conflicted characters who often carry heavy burdens. The 31-year-old possesses a wide-eyed openness that makes him the perfect conduit between the audience and the material. Here he’s the key piece that keeps us connected both narratively and on a human level. Most of the other players we meet, though captivating, are shallow hulls who work more as representations than genuine characters. That may sound like a criticism and in a wishful way I suppose it is. But it’s an approach that fits well with the journey Lowery takes us on.

Image Courtesy of A24

Patel plays the impetuous Gawain, nephew to the sickly King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his equally unwell looking queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie). Gawain is next in line for the crown but shirks his royal duties, choosing to hide his insecurities by drinking and cavorting with the waifish Esel (Alicia Vikander). But his life turns on Christmas morning when the king’s round table festivities are interrupted by an unexpected visitor. He’s a menacing yet entrancing creature surrounded by a dull forest green glow. He has the head of a Tolkien Ent sitting upon a giant’s body that creaks like thick bending tree limbs whenever he moves. His face is covered in tree bark, his eyes unexpectedly soulful, and his voice reverberating with the deep booming tones of Ralph Ineson.

With the full attention of the room, the creature issues a challenge. He offers anyone in the King’s court a free strike with their blade but it comes with one ominous condition – he’ll return the same blow exactly one year later at his chapel deep within a faraway forest. The impulsive Gawain jumps at the opportunity and with one swift slice of a sword decapitates the creature and begins his own legend. The still-living body of the hulking knight picks up his detached head and rides off, leaving a ‘see you in a year’ laugh echoing through the chamber.

The bulk of the film follows Gawain’s journey to keep his end of the agreement. Will Gawain remain a selfish entitled slacker or will he become a poem-worthy Arthurian legend? To answer that, Lowery takes his protagonist across a plethora of breathtaking landscapes, each using nature (a strength of Lowery’s) and the individual uniquenesses of the Irish locations to create this absorbing visual language. That may sound like nonsensical critic-speak, but it’s exactly what Lowery and his DP Andrew Droz Palermo do. Their camera (with a little help from Daniel Hart’s gnawing score – one of the year’s best) communicate a lingering feeling of dread that bleeds through every doom-soaked composition.

Image Courtesy of A24

Equally effective are the countless visual touches scattered throughout Lowery’s moody epic. Tracking shots of Gawain riding across the dreary cloud-covered countryside. Holding certain shots slightly longer than we’re accustomed to. Exquisite camera pans including a particularly brilliant one (you’ll know it when you see it). The incredible use of darkness and shadows. There’s always something grabbing your eye and it says something that the film’s most indelible moments come through the camera.

As for Gawain himself, his path is marked by a string of encounters that challenge him in a variety of ways. On a dank and muddy battlefield littered with corpses he runs into a chatty scavenger played by Barry Keoghan. Later he crosses paths with a transfixing spirit (Erin Kellyman) in need of his help to retrieve something of immense value to her. One that doesn’t quite land as it should comes later when an exhausted Gawain happens upon the remote estate of a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and his lecherous wife (also Alicia Vikander). There’s a subtext of temptation versus a knight’s honor, but the sequence drags and gets caught up it’s own cryptic weirdness. But the movie quickly gets back on track and ends strong.

“The Green Knight” is a movie destined to be exalted by some and loathed by others. It’s utter indifference to mainstream acceptance will hurt it at the box office, but it’s part of what makes it special. David Lowery uses every ounce of his creative freedom to make something audacious, challenging, and unlike any Arthurian adaptation we’ve seen to date. It can be confounding and a touch too captivated by its own enigma. But you’ll be entranced from the very first frame, and once you fall under it’s hypnotic spell, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the screen.


24 thoughts on “REVIEW: “The Green Knight” (2021)

  1. I read up to the point where the tree-like challenger rides off and says see you in a year. This is my kind of movie, and when I see you rated it 4 stars, I’m in!

    • It casts a pretty wicked spell on you. I was enthralled from start to finish. It gets a little too caught up in its own weirdness, but it’s impossible to turn away from the screen. I think you’ll like it.

  2. I saw the film yesterday and I thought it was phenomenal. Here is my full review of the film as I just love the visual scale of it as well as the many ambiguities it had and that fucking score. Holy fuck. Plus, I think Dev Patel just made himself a made man right now.

  3. I’m a confused on this here picture. Is this about that batman or green lantern or them fellers of the round table fight with them ousting sticks on the war horses? Claud W Simms.

  4. I don’t typically have much interest in medieval period pieces but several reviews I have read (including yours, which is most compelling) really have me rethinking skipping out on The Green Knight. This sounds actually really cool, really different. And I love how it goes against mainstream expectations. Those kinds of films really are a dying breed.

    • I absolutely bucks mainstream expectations. This is far removed from what you’re used to seeing from the usual medieval stuff. If you do decide to see it consider checking it out on the big screen. The visuals are nothing short of captivating.

  5. I just got back from the theater. *Excellent* review on it, Keith. You articulated everything of note, good, bad, and ugly so well. I liked the woman who played his mother, as her aspect lends a lot to the film. This is one I’ll have to watch over again to try to sort out all of the symbolism. I also really liked that it depended not so much on dialogue as physical atmosphere. The one soliloquy in there was quite enchanting. I love this movie even if it has 2 actors in it I normally can’t stand (Edgerton and Keoghan.) I also agree that Patel was perfect for the role. I hope he gets some kind of nod out of it!

  6. I’m closer to the loathed than exalted group. A little weirdness is ok, not an entire movie of it. I did stick it out, but I found it to just be a tiresome slog. Visually nicely done, but when just about every scene has me scratching my head – What’s the deal with the fox? Why does that chick say she doesn’t have a head? , etc – it just wears me out after a while.

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