by Paul Deeter
The concept of the saying “your days are numbered” as a threat is ominous yet abstract. What does it mean to know your time is coming up, or that the end is closer than you think? It’s threatening and depressing to hear the idea of death coming sooner than we’re prepared for, yet death comes for us all, at any time. It’s supposed to be natural and unpredictable, but the prediction of death is what makes it more unbearable to handle. In a horror film, seeing one’s death clock, or knowing the countdown to their exact date of death is effective in unraveling the nature of the characters affected. Its actually a numbering of days for the victims, and the idea of knowing that, no matter how near or far your death is, might be the worst part. Sir Gaiwan, is our hero perhaps, but at least our protagonist, and he has the exact day set for his destiny. He has one year aware of the day, Christmas Day, being an end to something. But what it means he doesn’t truly comprehend, and is certainly not prepared for.
On a Christmas Day, Gaiwan (played by Dev Patel) is seated to his uncle King Arthur in a feast of peace among other knights and noblemen. His mother does not attend this feast, and is known by townsfolk to be a witch-like woman. She is attending a ritual as witness to a prophecy for her son to be visited by the Green Knight. He interrupts the feast forcibly and with a challenge in hand, stamped in a green wax on parchment. The challenge (or maybe jestful game) is that one brave hero is to engage in combat with the Knight and attempt a blow on him, of any damage. Be it scratch or wound, the contestant simply must make the mark themselves, but in one year from Christmas Day, be expected to receive the same blow. Gaiwan, who is young and perhaps given in to some liquid courage from the ale and need to impress the King, agrees to the challenge. But instead of preparing to fight, the Knight bows his head in submission and Gaiwan, hesitant to succeed, decapitates him. As it was told, the challenge would continue of the same nature in a year, so the Green Knight rides off cackling holding his head like an Ent-like Headless Horseman. And so Gaiwan‘s days are numbered. 365 days until the return of the blow. Or perhaps his victory? It is not known truly what’s to come of his destiny, even the King ponders whether the challenge was theatrical or truly binding. But there’s no question that young Gaiwan, who’s enamored with praise and paintings and coin for his “bravery” must fulfill his destiny. If not, what is he but a coward who beheaded a still and unguarded foe?
Our Gaiwan, or David Lowery’s vision of him, is a troubled and young man who has yet to earn a tale of his own. Not unlike kings and knights before him, he has his doubts on nobility, and the worth of himself in court. In the introduction, (after a spooky prologue) we see Gaiwan for a simple, perhaps foolish kid who chases girls and drink and does not attend holy ceremony. He is virginal to the field of battle, and unfamiliar with the duties of a knight far before he proposes himself to be one. The movie asks in the beginning what defines bravery, and if it starts with an act of questionable intent. Gaiwan is not the same man a year after the first Christmas, but in almost an entire year to December he chooses to avoid thought on who he must be. He flirts and fights in bars and is in a drunken stupor when he glimpses the first snowflakes of the year fall on him, an omen of the final days. It’s no secret in the town this is his path, and little puppet shows around the square darkly predict the conclusion to end in his beheading.
Oh, heads will roll, all right.
With minimal dialogue and scant exposition, director Lowery uses imagery as strongly as he can to tell a story from the original verses. Some will see this movie with more knowledge of the tale of Gaiwan in classic text, or of the sacrificial story of Christ in context for the Christmas celebration. Most I believe, will not have read Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight which has been adapted timelessly from its 14th century origins, and is available in translation online today. I purchased a copy of the adaptation designed in preparation for the film‘s release, with the poster of the movie as the book’s cover. I intend to read this with more context of having seen the film, although whether or not I had read it before going into this movie may have had little to affect the outcome of my opinion. David Lowery is taking liberties with the tale here, and there’s a lot to digest for keen to casual audience viewers. When I went to see the film at 10:00pm on opening night with my brother, our theater was half full with young college kids of a certain kind. The ending had everyone talking and after exiting the theater two hipster clad teens were adulating the film while contemplating how confusing it could be. At chance, a man in a Lawrence University shirt (I am over assuming a teacher by his knowledge) took the opportunity to share some of the turns the film took in a modern direction. He discussed the fable more richly and in about 2-3 minutes of listening, completely blew my mind with just how much I couldn’t comprehend. As I said, the shirt and general knowledge made me curious enough to assume the gentleman taught the story in some kind of fantasy epic class.
My brother wonders if this is a film garnered for a larger audience. I noted we were keen critics and perhaps better prepared for a 2+ hour long and slowly churned fantasy epic. Guaranteed folks will walk away from this having seen a more action induced trailer or expecting the many monsters to take arm against Gaiwan on his journey. I would encourage everyone to experience this film, especially in a large format theater with a great sound-system. I’d even go to say that this film benefits from a lack of knowledge on the events that entail from the introductory sequence of the film, (which has been shared and discussed by most critics.) Some reviews have taken the film apart on a completely introspective level. I kept my eyes averted from reading anything on the film before seeing it, but the common consensus is overwhelmingly positive. The Green Knight was thoroughly hyped and set to high standards from the benefit of being distributed by the esteemed a24 production company, and directed by Lowery who made a24’s hit: 2017’s A Ghost Story. I admittedly have been hyped up for this film since the beginning of 2020, as the film was set to release during the pandemic. Over a year of release limbo is guaranteed to get folks riled up. It didn’t help that a delayed release of 2020’s Saint Maude, an a24 feature that perhaps miss-marketed itself as a horror film instead of a psychological terror, negatively affected large online communities of a24 fans. If the movie had been released on time or marketed more correctly perhaps it would have been received better, but it was an overall disappointment for many. The Green Knight therefore is juggling a delayed release on already high expectations. And on top of that, it’s being marketed as something of a fantasy epic, and I wouldn’t even know where to settle a genre onto it.
I’ve side-barred from the actual review aspect of this film, which I wanted to digest upon before coming to a conclusion. At Purely Kino I’ve made a point not to assign grades or number scores to films. I think that there’s less freedom to discuss the strengths or lows of a film while putting it on a strict number level. For example, Spiral is not a movie I would rank highly for story or performance, but if I put a low letter grade on it, I may distract readers from all of the good things I took from the film. I trust my readers, but I also know that grades are visually easier to respond to. A 4/4 is going to show a Fresh Score on RT, with at most a tagline and link available on the site. It buries a written criticism on the actual elements of what makes the movie a 4/4, and takes away the voice of the critic. I intend to write a piece about the problem with score accumulations and the loss of individual critical input on films as of recently, but that’s for another day. And I won’t put a grade on The Green Knight, but I’ll tell you what it did for me, and I hope that’s enough.
The Green Knight is almost as beautiful visually as it is in sound. The opening scenes in the castle bury the lead for a visually kaleidoscopic trip of an ever expanding color palette. When Gaiwan steps out of the grey and quiet comfort of his town, he almost immediately is plunged into green. But as one of the characters ponders in a later scene, what is the meaning of green? It is as she puts the color of Earth, but also decay, moss, time retaking that which lived back to the roots of the ground. Gaiwan travels through woods, mountain tops and swamps, seemingly in isolation but overwhelmingly surrounded nonetheless. His few encounters are cruel and sometimes spiritual, but he is never alone even when he wanders a stranger in a strange land. It may please fox fans that Gaiwan has one as a silent furry companion for a good portion of the movie. And the balance of exchanges, both literal exchange as favors for favors or simply conversations shared between other inhabitants are ambiguous. The idea of fairness is rooted in whether a true exchange of head for head be made to the Green Knight; and so continues thematically throughout the film. But we meet (I won’t spoil who) a character who believes that coin is not enough to thank a commoner for their wisdom. This chance encounter results in some major dilemma for Gaiwan. Yet when he is asked for a favor by another in a later scene, the idea of receiving something in return is scoffed at. Sir Gaiwan is to be a knight, and the movie makes it’s case over whether he holds true to that at heart and in bravery as well.
The visual beauty is bolstered by top notch visual effect work, most of which is not overwhelmingly done. There are a few larger than life appearances of beast or beings that require special effects to pull off. But the biggest effect of all is simply putting Gaiwan in a setting that seems unnatural but never unreal. It’s too gorgeous to question, and even the titled Green Knight, who towers around 10
feet tall and is covered in branches and moss, never seems overly cooked. I was reminded of Guierllmo Del Toro’s work with Pan in Pan‘s Labryinth, as both large and complex looking creatures can still harbor subtle emotional expressions in their scenes with live actors.
If I had to critique the most obvious presence of the film, I’d argue the soundtrack, while occasionally subtle and sweet, is mostly a cacophony of vocals and instrumentals that sometimes drown out what little dialogue is spoken. I’m not entirely sure if the issue was due to the mixing of the film or the volume of the theater, but more often than not the intensity of the soundtrack became too disorienting to focus on the narrative. I’d grant this film that small mishap given that The Green Knight is perhaps the most visually rewarding theater experience since reopening. With the focus hot on Marvel films and big blockbusters filling seats this summer, I’d ask readers to consider trying this feature for just how ambitiously large it is despite smaller reputation. This is by and large an epic film, event cinema even. David Lowery has made a film that may stand the test of time with giants like The Lord of the Rings and Pan’s Labryinth. It certainly feels confident that it will go down as a modern classic, an entry but not ending to a tale as imbedded in fiction as fable itself.