Frequently, films that make use of surrealism are compared to dreams, but I don’t think that’s necessarily quite accurate: dreams may be surreal, and they often are, but while you’re dreaming, everything seems to cohere, to make sense, even if you can’t figure out that sense. Some of A24’s strongest films have that quality, albeit they sometimes veer towards the nightmarish end of the spectrum. David Lowery’s The Green Knight may not be as terrifying as Midsommar or The Lighthouse, but it does feel like a dream you’re having while watching the film. And it can also be quite frightening. Most of all, though, it is one of the most unique visions I’ve recently seen at the cinema.
The story itself is simple enough, although that simplicity may belie the richness of the material: on Christmas Day, as King Arthur and his court hold a feast to celebrate the birth of Christ, a mysterious, imposing figure enters the hall: the Green Knight. He challenges one of those present to strike him. The king’s nephew, Gawain (Dev Patel), who isn’t yet a knight, obliges but he takes the challenge too far: he strikes the Green Knight’s head clean off. Unsettlingly unperturbed by this, the headless man grabs his noggin, tells Gawain to seek him out a year hence so that the favour can be returned, and leaves, laughing wildly (as you tend to do if you’ve just pulled off such a trick). So, twelve months later (minus a week, give or take), Gawain sets out to find the Green Knight.
So far, so chivalric romance – but, like the original material, there is more than meets the eye. For one thing, The Green Knight is as much about chivalrous ideals as it is about their failure. Gawain is eager to become a knight, surrounded as he is by living legends and lacking a story of his own. As soon as he leaves the safe confines of Camelot (and how safe are they, if the Green Knight can just intrude at will?), he finds that he lacks more than just a story: he strives to be brave, good, knightly, but the world keeps challenging him, and Gawain finds that he has plenty of reason to doubt himself. He is just barely up to the world he finds himself in.
And what a world it is! I have rarely seen any world in cinema that feels this archaic and mysterious, yet raw and alive and present. It is inhabited by bandits, magic and giants, and Gawain meets talking animals and ghosts, yet none of this feels even remotely like conventional fantasy fare or fairytales. There is a compelling quality to it all, a sense that, rather than just stage sets and CGI magic, this is what the world may be like just beneath the surface. A world we inhabit in dreams, perhaps. Gawain isn’t in control, he cannot be: he is out of his depth. Only myths and legends are a match for all of this.
Obviously, Gawain’s quest is a test of him and his character. And it is not that his character is lacking in any fundamental way – we see him striving to do good, and even succeeding, in particular in the surprisingly droll encounter with St Winifred, the ghost of a martyr. He is held back less by his failing to measure up than by his doubts that he ever could. The film, and Patel, depict him as a man who has not yet had a chance to prove himself, but who is ambivalent about this chance when it presents itself. Gawain is not a Christ-like figure, but The Green Knight echoes Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in ways that surprise at first but finally feel entirely in keeping with the story the film tells.
The Green Knight won’t be a film for everyone. It is wilfully strange, it revels in being elliptic, and its final scene is likely to get an appreciative chuckle from David Chase in ways that some may find grating. Although it is largely naturalistic in its presentation even when it shows us the most fantastic things, it still asks to be read metaphorically, yet its metaphors can at times be interpreted in contradictory ways. It is the kind of film that will seem very different based on what you bring to it. And, because of all of this, it will leave a lot of people non-plussed at best and frustrated at worst – and that’s before you factor in its meditative, dreamlike feel and pace.
But even if you just watch it as an experience, as a piece of visual art, and you’re willing to go with its flow, The Green Knight has riches to offer. It looks and feels like nothing else I’ve seen in the last several years. Even if you may not know where the film will take you, even if it may all end in failure and death, it is a journey worth taking.