Equal parts folk, prog rock and metal, The Green Knight takes place at the inflection point when one version of the old world was supplanted by the next. In David Lowery’s liberty-taking interpretation of the character’s 14th-century origin poem, the headstrong yet not-quite-valiant Sir Gawain (Dev Patel, superbo) traverses an England caught between the mystical pagan religions and the nascent Christianity soon to change the face of the nation.
At first, subtler touches denote the friction between the two, as in the cross-cutting juxtaposition of a supernatural blood-and-bone ritual against the quasi-biblical imagery of an ageing Arthur’s court. (The king’s crown doesn’t take the shape of a golden disc framing his head for nothing.) By the time near the third act that Lowery reveals his key reference point to be Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, another mounting of myth invested in mortal frailty and unconcerned with textual fidelity, it’s apparent that the maturation of one man is meant to coincide with that of an entire society.
The significance of this changeover and all left behind along the way constitutes just one of the substantive ideas put forth by a denser, more contemplative approach to medieval adventuring. Viewers keen on displays of chivalric bravery will be disappointed – and then, hopefully, intrigued – to find that Gawain’s quest revolves around an uncertainty bordering on cowardice that he spends more time denying than overcoming. In the film’s inciting scene, the gnarled-wood Green Knight (a CGI’d-up Ralph Ineson, his gravelly voice never better utilized) arrives at the round table with a challenge: behead him and gain everlasting glory, with the one caveat that in a year’s time, whoever did the deed must journey to his Green Chapel and accept the same fate themselves. Seems like a pretty raw deal, but in the first instance of Gawain accepting contracts without considering their full implications, he leaps at the chance to make a name for himself and lops the visitor’s noggin clean off. Though “clean off” misrepresents the moment, this animate bundle of twigs nonetheless sustaining a bloody flesh wound. As the pagans believed, the land itself is a living thing, capable of taking vengeance against those who would disrespect its might.
Smash-cut to one year later, and Gawain’s been enjoying his newfound reputation as well as the free pints that come with it. Patel’s dashing good looks cast him as the commanding figure the public perceives him to be, while in private, he’d rather spend his time canoodling with his lower-caste lover (Alicia Vikander). A sense of knightly obligation sends him on his way, which becomes the moral core of his arc; the difference between being who you think you should be and who you are. Conscious of how his own legend precedes him, Gawain sets out to prove his worth to himself, that lack of conviction coloring the loping, episodic journey through which he existentially wanders.
Across landscapes of rugged beauty, wreathed in fog and shot through a soft-focus lens for maximum mistiness, he encounters other wayfarers whose interactions underscore his human imperfection. A trickster (Barry Keoghan) leaves him for dead, jolting Gawain into action by confronting him with the vision of his own skeleton. More complex in their deceit, a lord and his lady (Joel Edgerton and Vikander, pulling double duty) exploit his flaws of character through sexual temptation. As the cunning final act makes clear, Gawain is in a sense a hostage of his own desire for greatness, his initial brashness masking a fearful interior. At a time when Hollywood has become obsessed with one-dimensional portrayals of superheroism, it’s a balm to see a director working in a similarly epic register to expose the fault lines of our adopted mythologies.
Leisurely but never lugubrious, the film gives grounds for Gawain’s conflicted ambitions by placing him in a primeval realm matching his sought-after stature. Lowery assembles arresting images – the Green Knight galloping away with his cackling severed head in hand, a glimpse of death bathed in red, a speaking fox with a warning – as tests for Gawain, pushing him to evolve and inhabit a setting swirling with an ambient power he must channel. For us, the pleasure of accompanying him on his mission comes in part from drinking in the breathtaking Irish-location-shot scenery, emerald-lush in some tracts and volcanically barren in others. That this eye-popping visual bounty would be a mere side attraction attests to how much movie Lowery jam-packs into two hours, the untamed gorgeousness easing us through the early-Christian arcana, tangled personal development, and occasional formal experiments with time. To disguise a film so artful and boldly uncommercial as mass-market entertainment for those still hurting from Game of Thrones’ conclusion – there’s your act of heroism.