There’s a moment in Green Knight in which Dev Patel’s character consumes mushrooms, which is something of a throwaway scene in the film, but a fitting metaphor for David Lowery’s style. No other living director makes me feel so much like I’ve taken mushrooms. In the same way psilocybin forces you to reevaluate familiar objects and situations through the eyes of a baby — a light socket, the kitchen drain, what other mundane miracles have we been taking for granted? — David Lowery’s movies make me feel like I’m watching a movie for the first time. All the familiar hallmarks are there, but it never settles into anything resembling a predictable pattern.
I don’t enjoy any other filmmaker so abstract or so self-consciously arty, nor could I entirely articulate Lowery’s purpose in any given scene. Words fail, and that’s part of his power. I’m left with an unmistakable feeling: this was a good trip.
Dev Patel plays Sir Gawain. Or rather just Gawain, he’s not yet a Knight when we meet him, just a carousing wannabe, whose first battle is with a hangover as he attempts to make his way from brothel to castle. Alicia Vikander plays Gawain’s chivalric fuckbuddy, Essel, with peasant’s accent and pageboy hair, with Sarita Choudhury as his disapproving but supportive mother. In a cast that’s perfect from top to bottom, Sean Harris plays the frail king (real ones among us remember him as a bisexual killer for hire in The Borgias) with Kate Dickie (the breastfeeding helicopter mom from the Eyrie in Game Of Thrones) as his queen. (Both actors must have faces that just scream “Dark Ages.”)
On a dark and misty Christmas night, this benevolently paternal king asks young Gawain, whose name the king pronounces “Gar-wynn” for some reason and no one corrects him because he’s the king, if Gawain will sit at the king’s table. Shortly after receiving this honor, an enormous, tree-like knight — “that’s the Green Knight,” you can whisper to your date — enters the hall on horseback to issue a challenge. He dares any of the king’s men to land a blow on him. But it comes with a twist: whatever blow the knight shall land, that knight must travel to the Green Chapel in exactly one year’s time and present himself before the Green Knight, who will return the blow unchallenged. Gawain accepts. He lands his blow, and fulfilling the second half of the challenge becomes both his quest and his dilemma.
What does it mean? Who is the Green Knight and what is his purpose? Can he be cheated? Trusted? What does it mean to renege or to fulfill this promise? Gawain soon sets off on his four-day journey to the Green Chapel, encountering along the way people and situations every bit as abstruse and spooky as the Green Knight himself. There’s a mischievous, corpse-robbing urchin boy played by Barry Keoghan (whose face, a pale pumpkin with slits for eyes, is one of the most compelling), an apparition searching for her head, and a fox that seems to guide the way.
A friend once said, after we’d watched Inside Llewyn Davis, that “every movie should have a magical cat.”
I agree with this, and, in The Green Knight, virtually every character is a magical cat. David Lowery might himself be a magical cat. Like Lowery’s 2017 movie, A Ghost Story, Green Knight is something of a riff on mortality. Whereas I nearly walked out of A Ghost Story during the seven-minute shot of Rooney Mara morosely eating pie (I was eventually glad that I didn’t), there’s nothing in Green Knight that feels artificially puffed up or derivative of other arthouse cinema in the way that shot did. The narrative jumps around in time and place without the usual signposts, with a logic that’s more lateral than it is linear. The beauty of Green Knight is that it’s so fully realized on every level — score, cinematography, production design, acting — that even when you don’t know entirely what Lowery is on about you can’t look away. It’s almost as if every individual shot has a narrative arc unto itself. It’s so compelling on a micro level that the “big picture” becomes irrelevant. You stop worrying “what does this mean” and “where is this going” and simply savor the moment, like a creature of pure sensual pleasure. Like I said, mushrooms.
This question of the Green Knight, based on an Arthurian poem whose meaning scholars have debated since the 13th century, his greenness, and what he represents — life, death, the devil, entropy — is at the heart of Gawain’s quest. Which becomes, essentially, his search for the meaning of life. As Gawain strives after the chivalric virtues of love, honor, greatness, he’s forced to ponder what they truly mean. Is he actually willing to risk his life to obtain some abstract trophy? Is honor a feeling, a way of life, or simply an external challenge to complete? He ponders, essentially, what we in the modern age might call “adulting.”
On paper, this abstract meditation on The Meaning Of Everything from David Lowery and A24 might sound like A24 at its most A24iest. What makes it great is that while Green Knight might be abstract, lateral, impressionistic — it’s also decidedly un-cerebral. This is as close as abstract expressionism comes to being a crowd-pleaser. Whereas similarly celebrated movies like First Cow have a tendency to treat sex like it’s something you read about in the New Yorker, passion is Green Knight‘s lifeblood. And it’s hard to mistake what the film is actually about, even if it’s delivered in a non-traditional form and structure.
Alicia Vikander shows up in a few places as different characters, like a haunting melody Gawain can’t quite forget. Vikander is so good it’s hard to describe. She’s liquid metal, nothing short of a revelation in both roles. She and Dev Patel have real chemistry. Most important of all, when the climactic moments come, David Lowery never looks away.
He’s conveying his thoughts, fears, obsessions in ways I’ve never seen before, reinventing the cinematic language as he goes along. What must this have looked like on paper? It’s impossible to imagine. No one facet of the film — writing, lighting, direction, design — really works without any other, yet they’re perfect just so. It’s a work that could seemingly only exist in the precise format in which it’s delivered. The best art is like that.