Quiet and disquieting, David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a story of fear, of desire, of honor and of futility. It begins with a slovenly young man, coddled by the (un)comfortable surety of his life among legends: Gawain (played by the sublime Dev Patel) lives in what seems to be the court of King Arthur, but only Gawain’s name is ever certain among them. Other figures are like shadows, puppeted by Gawain’s sorceress mother (Sarita Choudhury), populating a place both mythical and visceral.
Scenes are viewed through narrow windows and at crossroads of warrens covered in frost. Men share moments of intimate affection. Costumes delight in their anachronisms. High, lucent choral music keeps us guessing, even in moments of stillness. The King and Queen of England are sickly, and the will for greatness that Gawain inherits from them is one rife with self-doubt. This is an Arthurian world, but one with a texture and beauty both sensual and desolate, setting it apart from the (entirely white) action flicks characteristic of the genre.
On Christmas Day, the mysterious Green Knight, a towering anthropomorphic tree, arrives at court and issues a challenge: If someone will strike him with his own axe, the axe is theirs, and in a year’s time he will return the blow in whatever form it took. Gawain, feeling the weight of the court’s expectations, accepts the challenge and lops off the Green Knight’s head — only for the knight to rise and laugh, “One year hence!” After a too quick year, Gawain embarks on a windswept journey, facing howling giants, ghosts, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and his own mortality.
Miraculously, when I read the chivalric romance ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ in my first-year writing seminar, I managed to be so absorbed that I did not notice all the rhymes and alliteration. I had the same experience with its film adaptation: Only in retrospect did I realize the patterns threaded artfully throughout, and questions about what makes a life meaningful — and a film a work of art. Each shot of The Green Knight could be an oil painting.
I preface the rest of my analysis with the fact that I am unapologetic in my love for the film, for although its marketing led viewers to expect a fantasy epic and thus led to justifiably disappointed reviews, The Green Knight whispers rather than trumpets its story. It is strange, halting and opaque. It chuckles at the backlash against a medieval fantasy with a conventionally attractive Brown lead, representation that should be the bare minimum. Altogether, though I suspect I will notice new threads with future viewings, here are just a few that I have tried to unravel.
Some of the most powerful messages come from the film’s women. While the Queen serves as the voice of the Green Knight’s challenge, its disparate women are far more than idle mouthpieces. Alicia Vikander plays Gawain’s lover, Essel, who Gawain cares for but holds at arm’s length because of her lower class; Vikander also plays another character: the Lady to whom Gawain ‘succumbs.’
As daunting and clever as the film itself, the Lady creates a portrait of Gawain, an image through a pinhole camera, that seems to comment on the very nature of a film that appears, like both portrait and Lady, an inverted reflection in deep water. The Green Knight is preceded by the winding horns of old chivalric tales, but it nimbly outpaces them, refashioning itself as a cerebral coming of age tale, or — more aptly — coming of death.
The discordant choral soundtrack is often broken by abrupt and total silence, or birdsong. Thus all life ends, but the green of the earth grows out of and from it, and so it is endless. The Green Chapel is the ultimate symbol of human constructs overgrown, rigid piety swallowed up, of the wild and returned to it. While the Green Knight issues his challenge in the court of Camelot, Gawain ends his journey in the court of the forest: he arrives to the silence of a ruin, and the breathing darkness of growing things, and the trickling of water, where he is forced to wait for his heart to slow and Christmas to arrive. The first swift blow of civilization, of human life, is thus answered by the unfeeling blow of the inevitable, of nature — not only of death, but all our deeds and systems and codes coming undone, grown over with ivy.
“I know what I face,” Gawain cries, when challenged by the fox to turn away from the life and death that is expected from a man of supposed honor.
“If any man truly knew,” answers the fox, “he would bear his shame happily and turn away, head held high to end his song as he saw fit.” Though Gawain rejects this offer, the viewer is tempted to feel comfort at its clarity: the film seems to say, breathe a sigh — live a life unburdened by obligations blindly forged in your society. Seek your goodness and not the greatness you were told you wanted.
But The Green Knight does not allow you to feel or think anything simply. Gawain meets the Green Knight flinching and weeping, and he glimpses a vision of his life if he flees. In this vision, we are shown Gawain’s callousness, tearing his child away from Essel, leading his family and kingdom into violent ruin, dying alone — abandoning his magical, sodden belt at last, pulling out the umbilical cord that bound him to a life that was hardly of his own making. His head drops to the floor.
Is a code, a prewritten, grand story for oneself — even a delusion or one that ends in abject horror — a better fate than a hollow life?
As the Green Knight himself says, What else ought there to be? The same question echoes for the audience (especially those familiar with the original tale) who expect Gawain to walk away a better man. Instead, the film ends in the midst of its own unanswered questions, with Gawain surrendering his magical protection, ready for his death. Even the exposed tree rings of the closing credits seem to confirm the finality of the axe.
This is not, however, an unhappy film at its core. We feel for Gawain, and for the futile courage he finds at last. And yet, in the end, there is the green: As the Lady says, our footprints shall fill with grass, and moss grow over our tombs, and “when we, together all, find that our reach has exceeded our grasp, we cut it down, we stamp it out, we spread ourselves atop it…but it comes back.” Even our questions of meaning exceed our grasp in the end, for our end is the warm silence of green growing over all we have written and done, and whether that is a source of dread or comfort makes little difference.
The Green Knight will be shown at Cornell Cinema on October 14th, 16th, and 17th.
Charlee Mandy is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]