“The Green Knight” (2021) – Truth or Dare. It’s a devilish game.
Sometimes, the player faces a no-win circumstance because each choice will cause detrimental angst.
Reveal a long-held crush when the said person sits – right there – across the living room, or pour two ounces of Tabasco in a wine glass and gulp it down. Yikes. Perhaps, look to Joshua from “War Games” (1983) for advice when dealing with such alternatives.
“The only winning move is not to play.”
In writer/director David Lowery’s film – based on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, a 14th-century poem – the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a shadowy figure that would make the Headless Horseman pause with concern, enters King Arthur’s (Sean Harris) castle on December 25th. He addresses the court and offers a challenge: anyone may openly strike a blow against him, and in one year, the knight will deliver an equal incursion on the brave – or enormously gullible – volunteer.
Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), the king’s nephew, just earlier admits his truth: he has no notable personal stories to share. So, he accepts the knight’s dare.
A deadly challenge.
A Christmas game.
Unfortunately, Gawain doesn’t exactly realize the actual consequences. When Arthur asks if he does understand them, Gawain responds, “I do. I think I do.”
At its core, “The Green Knight” is a straightforward, medieval quest – but one wrapped in spellbinding visuals – in which our hero strives to overcome his insecurities and naivety to reach a greater ambition. In this particular case, Gawain seeks honor, even though he hasn’t entirely convinced himself that it’s a goal worth pursuing.
Lowery’s movie is one worth seeking, though – at times – it’s a challenging, 130-minute experience. Gawain needs to journey six days to the Green Chapel to meet his (potential) fate, but the audience would be better served with a three-day trek. A friendly fox joins the young sir for most of the way, and they occasionally encounter both human and mystical beings, as one would expect.
A trio of serfs – led by Barry Keoghan’s character – first bump into Gawain. Keoghan (“’71” (2014), “The Killing of the Sacred Deer” (2017)) thrives on playing questionable personas, so you might succumb to a sickening feeling when he arrives on-screen. Perhaps, he’s playing off-type here. One may hope. Erin Kellyman, Joel Edgerton, and Alicia Vikander also star as noteworthy beings who pop up on Gawain’s adventure. They sometimes speak in parables and, therefore, have ambiguous presences at first examination. Admittedly, this critic watched the film twice and still doesn’t quite grasp their riddles or motivations. No doubt, reading the source material and hiring a poetry professor to apply a translation would help.
However, the Green Knight’s purpose remains crystal clear, and Ineson is the absolute perfect choice to play this worrying, emerald creature. It may seem that the film’s 16-person sound department grabbed every level and lever within their grasp to augment the knight’s menacing voice. Then again, probably not. Ineson might sport the deepest, darkest bass in recent cinema history, and if you are skeptical, just watch Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (2015) for confirmation.
Along with his speech, the green baddie moves with a deliberate, commanding pace, and even though he might not be tall enough to star as an NBA center, his every step makes the ground rumble and his spectators shake.
No doubt, Lowery – along with his countless team members – summoned all their filmmaking powers as they drench spectacular cinematic visuals in a world-building endeavor that simultaneously feels familiar and starkly unique. For over two hours, we’re treated to earthly and supernatural landscapes that resemble feudal British Isle highlands, mossy (German) Black Forest mysteries, and treacherous volcanic ridges. Lowery even offers shades of “Blade Runner 2049” (2017) that will stop you in your tracks. He turns our world upside down, figuratively and – at one point – literally.
Despite the vast, diverse images portrayed on-screen, Lowery actually filmed his movie in a fairly self-contained environment. In “The Green Knight” press notes, Lowery explains.
“The original story is set in Wales, and the poem is tied to Welsh geography, but for various reasons we were drawn to Ireland. It had everything we needed – the landscapes, the weather, the castles. Almost everything you see in the movie is within 30 minutes of Dublin,” Lowery says.
(On a personal note, I spent a little over a week in Dublin. Geez, I needed to explore more, but I digress.)
Meanwhile, a choir – of seemingly hundreds, who may have been trained through traditional Catholic Church harmonies and heavy metal music – accompany Gawain and us through most of the film. It’s unknown if they originate from heaven or hell. I want to think the former, but I kept hearing rings from “The Omen” (1976), and we all know how that turned out.
No matter Gawain’s fate, Patel – front and center – impressively carries us on our protagonist’s narrow shoulders from beginning to end. Patel offers airs of innocence and vulnerability, like a Little League baseball player cautiously stepping into a batter’s box for the first time. Still, Gawain sustains repeated wallops during his six-day search. Patel dives into this intensely physical role and – indeed – expresses the toil of the actual and emotional beatings and setbacks, all in pursuit of honor.
“The Green Knight” is an honorable movie, albeit not entirely palatable. The movie sometimes generates frustration and, on occasion, feels overproduced and overedited, especially during the first act, when conjuring the knight’s message. The thorny sequence feels like the “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) editing crew consulted on the project, chopped up Lowery’s film into micro-bits, and glued them together. However, overall, the visuals are the movie’s massive strengths, and “The Green Knight” should rightly garner Oscar nominations in just about every technical category.
With all the gushing cinematic pomp and circumstance, “The Green Knight” is a simple game of truth AND dare. Well, I’d rather not play, but I’ll watch.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Written and directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Dev Patel, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Barry Keoghan, and Ralph Ineson
Runtime: 130 minutes
Image credits: A24