Watching David Lowery’s “The Green Knight,” it’s hard to believe it’s based on the 14th-century tale. While I don’t watch that many movies, it has to be one of the most unusually clever and artistically adventurous films I’ve seen in ages.
The blending of dramatic visuals like the Green Knight’s worn, wooden skin or the halo-like ring around the king’s crown with a more realistic color profile and setting works to create scenes packed with symbolism and oozing with artistic intent.
The film follows Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur and son of an enchantress, who embarks on a quest against the Green Knight, a tree-like soldier, after King Arthur is challenged by the knight on Christmas Day. A modern adaptation of an Arthurian legend, the film grapples with traditional ideas of honor and fate, questioning them through its establishment of characters and its choice of narrative structure.
The narrative was divided into multiple acts, each of which focused on a different leg of his quest: The first being the exposition, followed by a series of encounters, and ending with the final confrontation. Along with creating clear dividing lines between narratives, this structure allowed for expectations to be set, followed, and sometimes even broken to create a compelling narrative as opposed to a predictable one.
“The Green Knight” is a fantastic example of believable fantasy, and that’s not because any moment of the film feels practical or realistic, but because the characters themselves and their interactions are entirely believable.
They’re all normal, empathetic people in a strange world — something that’s not too common in the fantasy films I’ve seen, and which makes the entire narrative feel immersive and real as opposed to a showcase of bravery and perfect decision-making with oddly religious undertones.
To keep alluding to my issues with “The Lord of the Rings,” the film doesn’t over-indulge in spectacle or drama, instead centering itself on Gawain’s quest. The lack of B-plots and unnecessary side stories was a nice break from blockbuster movies plagued by overdone writing, and allowed for a precise focus on the actual story.
As a narrator, Gawain himself is shown to be inconsistent, but never an outright liar. The unreliability of the narrator serves as a reflection of his own internal anxieties and fears, as opposed to intentional ambiguities or an indication of the narrator’s warped perception of reality.
Gawain is more an inexperienced narrator than an unreliable one, something that is also reflected in the plotline itself. The film becomes a commentary on privilege, nepotism and the fantasy-standard ideas of fate and destiny. With this, the ending of the film certainly finds a way to completely change directions from the start, which both emphasizes and breaks down the characterization that was created leading up to it.
Some people I know are very much not fans of the film, whether because of gratuitous scenes, being “too pretentious,” as a friend of mine said it was, or an ending they thought was unsatisfying.
Quite a few aspects of the film won’t appeal to everyone — “The Green Knight” celebrates ambiguity and takes joy in misdirecting viewers. For example, I had no clue until after watching that two characters were portrayed by the same actress — something that a friend had to point out to me.
The film can even be considered comedic. From laughable situations to entertaining twists of fate and drastic exaggerations, the movie has a sense of humor. It’s not front and center like “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” but I did find myself chuckling at a few of the films' less serious moments.
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Almost every fantasy film I’ve seen fell short in some way, be it storytelling, writing, or just bad artistic direction. But everything came together perfectly with “The Green Knight.” It was what I always wished I could find when watching a fantasy film — something willing to take risks rather than simply putting a traditional story in an untraditional world.