“Standing on the shoulders of giants leaves me cold,” sang Michael Stipe on R.E.M.’s 1987 ballad “King of Birds,” updating a 12th century epigram about the need to draw inspiration from titans of the past. The twist, however, is that the song’s narrator stubbornly wants to find an “idea to call [his own].”
The Green Knight—David Lowery’s new medieval drama based on an Arthurian legend—features giants too. In an eerie, surreally stylized sequence, the dissolute would-be knight Gawain (Dev Patel) encounters a mountain-sized wanderer and asks whether he might hitch a ride on its shoulder in order to ease his journey. It’s a moment that pinpoints something in Gawain’s character as well as in Lowery’s: Where the striver onscreen searches lazily for shortcuts, the director is thinking big.
Lowery’s last feature, A Ghost Story, was intimately metaphysical, shrinking the universe to the size of a deserted, increasingly dilapidated house where a lonely phantom watched as time passed him by. It played an existential melody in a minor key. Working here on a larger canvas and backed by the market-savvy brain trust at A24, the director stands on the shoulders of filmmaking giants—mostly John Boorman of Excalibur—while grasping for a vanished, mythic grandeur that has as much to do with the New Hollywood of the 1970s as the Round Table. The mission: to imbue sword-and-sorcery cinema with power and glory once more.
For the first 30 minutes or so, Lowery’s approach is convincingly visionary. Working with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo—who also shot A Ghost Story—he conjures up a beautifully blighted English countryside in which the fields and the castles are cast in gray, as if Nature herself has been drained of vitality. The sense of a world withering on the vine is encoded into the source material—the source text, “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” has been widely interpreted as a parable of Arthurian decline, charting the waning of noble ideals in the wake of the Crusades (and perhaps implying they weren’t all that noble to begin with).
The Green Knight’s impressively faithful screenplay adaptation doubles down on this idea of diminishing returns, zeroing in on a wastrel who dreams of rising above his station but lacks a backbone. “I’m not ready,” protests a slovenly, hungover Gawain after being called to Christmas mass by his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander), a line that pulls double duty as a commentary on his unformed character. Asked by King Arthur (Sean Harris) to tell a story about himself so that he might better know him, Gawain responds that he has no tales—his life to date is a blank slate.
Cue a monstrous intruder: [whispering to my date while watching The Green Knight when the Green Knight first appears on the screen] That’s the Green Knight. Lowery adopts the visual language of a monster movie to introduce his film’s namesake, and the knight’s arrival has a dark, severe beauty; towering over King Arthur and his assembled courtiers and warriors, the newcomer lays down a cryptic challenge that Gawain—whose mother is the sorceress Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury)—answers impulsively. Here is a chance to write his own story.
The knight’s proposition is quid pro quo: Gawain is offered a free swipe at his bowed head and exposed neck. By taking it, though, he agrees to a rematch one year later, on the Green Knight’s turf, and with the understanding that his opponent—who doesn’t seem to mind being decapitated, and exits the premises cackling with head in hand—will be allowed to deliver a matching blow.
If there’s something a bit ridiculous about an epic hinging on a life-or-death game of Rochambeau, Lowery embraces the absurdity—just take, for example, Gawain’s subsequent adoption of a sleek, loyal, cutely aloof fox as a sounding board and traveling companion. (I won’t say more about the fox’s role or hidden capabilities, but I was glad to see him get work again after Antichrist). The Green Knight’s structure replicates the original poem’s picaresque progression, dividing the action into a series of digressive, uneven vignettes that emphasize the downtime built into the protagonist’s quest. The waiting is the hardest part, and Gawain has plenty of time to get ready—and to meditate on his impending doom.
With his limpid, almost otherworldly handsomeness, Patel is an inspired choice to play a man largely without qualities—a pretender buckling under the weight of his own expectations, as well as everybody else’s. An interlude involving a Gawain-themed puppet show ominously kids the concept of medieval celebrity—a theme wryly satirized before by Stephen Schwartz in his 1972 musical Pippin, also about a wayward pretender to the English throne. As an actor, Patel’s greatest strength is emotional transparency, so when Gawain tries to hide his anxieties from the people around him, he’s actually less convincing than if he just owned up to his fears. It’s easy to see why Vikander’s Essel desires him, but also to connect with her (correct) assessment that he lacks resolve; she can see that she isn’t going to fix him. And neither, ultimately is Arthur, inhabited by Harris with a weariness that suggests the old king has no strength left to draw anything out—neither a sword from a stone nor a true knight from an errant boy.
Eventually, Gawain decides to go get what’s coming to him, and it’s once The Green Knight hits the road that the strengths and weaknesses of Lowery’s severe, slow-down aesthetic become apparent. The same aimlessness that defines Patel’s performance infects the movie’s storytelling as a whole, and even if the synchronicity is purposeful, it doesn’t mitigate the attendant sense of a film preciously sleepwalking its way between meticulously storyboarded, show-stopping set pieces. The best of these, like the aforementioned encounter with the melancholy giants looming huge against the digitized horizon, evoke the scale and atmosphere Peter Jackson achieved in the Lord of the Rings series, minus that series’ abiding warmth and empathy. Jackson’s Tolkien movies are long and slow, but they’re also rousing—studies in solidarity in which the battle lines between good and evil are cleanly drawn. The Green Knight is more interested in—deep breath—the Evil Within, and Gawain’s relationships are all transient and transactional. As Sam and Frodo trudged toward Mordor, there was mounting suspense and dread; here, the pacing is simply funereal, a vibe strengthened by recurring images of skulls and corpses lying lonely and abandoned among the foliage.
Everything in The Green Knight is freighted with portent, and because Lowery is working in such a stridently symbolic register, he’s also all but daring the audience to call his allegorical bluff. So here it goes: On the surface, the countdown to the clash between Gawain and his superhuman rival scans either as a fable of innocence versus experience—of a young man’s prolonged initiation ritual—or else a power struggle between pagan and Judeo-Christian systems of faith, with the old ways overtaking the new. Both readings work, but in the same way that Lowery torqued A Ghost Story’s moony his-and-her romance into a study of millennial insecurity and impermanence, The Green Knight peels back layers to reveal a present-tense social critique. After arriving at a lavish castle whose lady (Vikander again) is a well-heeled doppelgänger for Essel—and equally determined to seduce him—Gawain sits quietly as she extemporizes on the basic symbolism of the color green, specifically the idea that in the end, after all the wars have ended, nature conquers all.
Ashes to ashes is a biblical truism, and already by the 14th century it could have been applied to many forms of human hubris. Circa 2021, however, it just hits differently. Lowery’s fable about a half-human, half-arboreal creature patiently cultivating a lethal debt against a crumbling civilization vibrates with a certain apocalyptic anxiety, one that’s been color-coded for maximum effect. Stoic, implacable, and only resigned to defeat in Round 1 because he knows his revenge is impending, the Green Knight (played with the aid of makeup and special effects by The Witch’s Ralph Ineson) terrifies as a figure out of a woodcut (or a bitchin’ heavy-metal album cover), but he’s also an avatar of climate change.
Maybe this reading is a stretch, but The Green Knight reaches at every turn—sometimes excitingly, sometimes beyond its grasp, sometimes simply to stroke its own impressiveness. The film’s mile-high pileup of gore, grotesquerie, and explicit, R-rated sexuality (including a money shot worthy of Claire Denis’s High Life) is self-consciously provocative, for better and for worse. Like Boorman with Excalibur in 1981—a movie made in the shadow of Star Wars—Lowery recognizes that Hollywood blockbusters have become totally neutered, and his mission to reinstate some rawness alongside the awe is a welcome one. What he lacks is the humor ambition of a filmmaker like Boorman, who eschewed commercial calculation as easily as breathing, and who managed to fuse despair with idealism; Lowery, for all his showmanship, doesn’t dare anything close to the latter.
The Green Knight is plenty striking and unconventional by the standards of mainstream American movies (and that’s not a small thing), but its transgressiveness is nevertheless too tidy, as is its sense of tragedy. In the homestretch, it becomes clear that one of the giants that Lowery is trying to sidle up to with The Green Knight is the Martin Scorsese of The Last Temptation of Christ—the heretic auteur who dared to depict Jesus lusting after something like normality and nearly wrote himself a death sentence.
Lowery’s hallucinatory coda deploys some of Scorsese’s cinematic syntax—it’s a vision of temptation—but it doesn’t access the same (sac)religious conviction. And so it goes with a film that wears its weirdness as a badge of honor without quite plunging off the deep end. When Lowery opens things with a shot of a skull bursting into flames beneath a golden crown, we’re primed for something scintillating and white-hot. Between its self-aggrandizing style and prepackaged gravitas, The Green Knight could just as easily leave you cold.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.