“Remember: It is only a game.” Those words, more ominous than encouraging, are heard early in The Green Knight, David Lowery’s intimate medieval epic. They are spoken by King Arthur (Sean Harris) to his hasty young nephew, Gawain (Dev Patel), who’s about to confront the challenge of his life. If this is indeed a game, the stakes are uncertain, the rules a mystery, the outcome far from guaranteed. One way to approach this stunningly beautiful and often hypnotic movie is to see it as another kind of game, one that Lowery is delighted to play with and on you, swirling and subverting your expectations. Those who’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th century poem of unknown authorship and vast influence, will come to Lowery’s film with their own preconceptions. So will those who’ve seen their share of Arthurian epics, a mixed lineage that ranges from the lush grandeur of John Boorman’s Excalibur to the bold unriddling of Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac. The Green Knight isn’t really a radical departure from these predecessors; equal turns ravishing and austere, earthy and noble, it seems to have absorbed its many influences and transformed them into something vital and singular. It’s a bewitching feat of revisionist mythmaking, the kind that implores you to look upon an old story with newly appreciative eyes.
The importance of seeing clearly, of looking inward at oneself and the larger world with depth and perception, is at the heart of a story marked by its own bold intensity of vision. (Cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo’s exquisite images; the intricate but never ostentatious sets and costumes designed by Jade Healy and Malgosia Turzanska, respectively.) Tellingly, when we first meet Gawain, he’s being yanked out of a deep slumber, not for the last time in a movie that plays like a series of rude awakenings. The one rousing him this time is his lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander), in a brothel on Christmas morning. “Christ is born,” she says, and the invocation lingers; like so many Arthurian legends, The Green Knight bears witness as an old world of pagan rituals gives way to a rising tide of Christian belief. Gawain himself incarnates that religio-cultural tension. He is the nephew of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickey) and a privileged guest at their Christmas celebration. But in one of a few key deviations from the original text, Gawain is also the son of the enchantress Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), whose determination to secure his future sets the story in motion. We see her cunning hand at work as Arthur’s Christmas festivities are interrupted by the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who turns up like the evil fairy crashing Sleeping Beauty’s christening.
Evil, however, this visitor’s game is not. Riding in on horseback and bearing a leafy scepter, he’s an imposing Treebeard-like figure, but his eyes, gleaming out from a gnarled trunk of a face, carry more mischief than malice. The Green Knight challenges those present to a game, inviting anyone to strike him, on the condition that one year later they will reunite at the distant Green Chapel, where the challenger will be dealt the same blow in return. Gawain impulsively accepts, swings a sword and decapitates the Green Knight — who in turn rises from the floor, calmly retrieves his head and leaves, reminding Gawain that they will reunite in one year. Before long that year is nearly spent, and Gawain, with a mighty ax in hand and a magically protective green sash tied around his waist, ventures forth to confront his uncertain destiny. Will he lose his head, or is the Green Knight’s game just that? That’s just one question that lingers over this solemn hero’s quest, in which long stretches of solitude alternate with beguiling and sinister encounters. There are wily thieves and spectral maidens, wandering giants and a persistently friendly fox. The splendid supporting players include Barry Keoghan, Erin Kellyman, Helena Browne and Joel Edgerton, whose voice takes on a lovely, almost musical lilt in the role of a kindly lord who welcomes Gawain into a castle full of secrets.
Speaking of music: These fateful encounters draw lyricism and gravity from the vocal-heavy interludes and delicately plucked strings of Daniel Hart’s enveloping score. They are also delineated by ornate chapter headings, one of a few structuring devices that can feel both immersive and distancing: classical touches infused with an arch playfulness. Lowery plays with proximity and distance throughout; we are close beside Gawain at some moments and far away from him at others, as he stands dwarfed by fog-draped mountains and moss-covered forests. Sometimes we are peering down at him from a God’s-eye view — or perhaps the perspective of someone examining a beautifully embroidered tapestry, or the moving pieces on a game board. The game advances, and with it a test of wits and fortitude — the kind that every aspiring knight must endure and master. Gawain’s progress is doggedly linear but also curiously circular. His prized possessions have a way of getting lost and then finding their way back to him. Mysterious doublings recur throughout the narrative: a painting, a woman’s face, a(nother) severed head. At times the camera rotates slowly on its axis, a movement that seems to accelerate — and even boldly reverse — the passage of time itself. And in ways both unsettling and oddly reassuring, each of Gawain’s adventures seems to hark back to that original Christmas Day challenge. With each new encounter, an exchange of favors is requested, though not always achieved. The moral implications of each exchange will reverberate through the story, cutting to the heart of what turns out to be, for Gawain, an epic quest for purity and possible salvation. Why do we expect repayment for a gift, a favor, an act of kindness? What is the cost of withholding what someone is due — or, worse, of clinging to something we haven’t earned? Is Gawain really off to reunite with the Green Knight, or has the Green Knight perhaps been traveling with him all along, manifesting himself in a different form each time?
Lowery’s film teases out these riddles, some of which are as old as the text itself, but it’s finally too rich, mysterious and sensuous an experience to be confined by any of them. Its symbols and archetypes contain interpretive multitudes. The Green Knight himself is both a resurrected Christ figure and an avatar of the natural world — an imposing, sometimes confounding embodiment of pagan and Christian traditions. That duality finds even more forceful expression in Patel’s performance, which is by turns a wrenching study in spiritual torment and a sweatily charismatic star turn. Not least among the things we’re invited to contemplate in this endlessly contemplative film is the beauty of its leading man.
The deliberation of Lowery’s gaze feels aesthetically indebted to any number of great spiritual epics: You might be reminded of the philosophical duel in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal or the searing, searching passion play of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. But it also feels of a piece with Lowery’s own past work. At times Gawain’s journey echoes that of another alienated wanderer, the temporally unmoored protagonists of A Ghost Story — a title that could just as easily have applied to this movie, with its dark visions and strange spirits. The mystery that haunts Gawain is whether he is ready to cross over, and whether he will continue to deny his desires in the short time that may remain to him. What does it mean to be a knight, or even just to be human? It isn’t an easy question, and The Green Knight, in taking it seriously, isn’t always an easy film. But by the time Gawain reaches his journey’s end, in as moving and majestically sustained a passage of pure, unabashed cinema as I’ve seen this year, the moral arc of his journey has snapped into undeniable focus. He plays the game; he accepts the challenge. His example is worth following. Earthy, ghostily contemplative and marked with a blend of singular sensitivity and enigmatic storytelling, The Green Knight is a misty, melancholic dream of self-doubt and uncertainty.
The Green Knight is currently playing in Theaters nationwide, as of July 30