The Green Knight is an incredibly weird, horror influenced, visually lush and somewhat ponderous adaptation of the Arthurian legend. There’s a lot of long takes of gorgeous scenery and colour saturated visuals which are not exactly zippy. The film has an episodic feel as it goes from one slightly creepy encounter to the next. It’s kind of like an arthouse horror movie set in magical ancient times. With a sparse script and some elements that are somewhat frustratingly unexplained it gets by on a unsettling vibe. There’s been a lot of takes on the Knights of King Arthur’s Table but none as strange as this.
Gawain (Dev Patel) is a wannabe knight for King Arthur (Sean Harris) although he spends much of his time in a local brothel with Essel (Alicia Vikander) much to the disapproval of Gawain’s mother (Sarita Choudhury). At a Christmas feast of Arthur’s knights arrives the tree-looking and emerald coloured Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). The Green Knight offers a game, whoever strikes him in one year they will travel to the Green Knight’s lair and he will return the favour. Gawain, wanting to prove himself, lops off the Green Knight’s head. The Green Knight promptly picks up his own head and rides off laughing, saying he’ll see Gawain in a year. Eventually, Gawain sets out towards his fate, meeting along the way a tricky scavenger (Barry Keoghan), a possible ghost lady (Erin Kellyman), talking foxes and giants. Finally, Gawain lands at a castle with an overtly generous lord (Joel Edgerton) and the lady of the castle who bears a striking resemblance to his love, Essel. Despite the long trek, the Green Knight still awaits Gawain with his axe.
Directed by David Lowry (A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon) the camera lingers often upon the landscapes in lots of long, unbroken shots, sort of like an art-house Lord of the Rings. One scene where the visual style works incredibly well is when Gawain encounters an immediately suspicious scavenger in a long take of Gawain riding his horse as the scavenger prattles on about a battle that happened as soldiers’ bodies are strewn about. Keoghan as the chatty scavenger has an immediately unsettling vibe which gets more pronounced when he shows up later, gloating over Gawain. There’s an impending sense of death that hangs over almost every scene, which is appropriate since the flick starts out with Gawain hacking off the Green Knight’s head and the damn thing just laughing at him.
There are more people along the travels and each one is distinctly strange, like a scene when Gawain meets a ghost lady who wants him to retrieve her head. It’s a darkly funny scene as Kellyman plays it very straight that she is a ghost and the fact her head is at the bottom of a lake is a mild inconvenience. When Gawain reaches out to see if she’s real, she just snaps not to touch him. Later, when Gawain finds a castle run by a lady and a lord, they are an overtly chatty sort. Edgerton’s lord is vaguely off-putting like he’ll be offended if Gawain doesn’t accept his hospitality.
The lady of the castle is also played by Vikander in an interesting bit of dual role casting. Irritatingly, the movie never explains why she’s the same woman as Gawain’s girlfriend back home. Maybe it’s meant to be a thematic thing but in a movie that has magic as a literal plot point, the person duplication needs more elaboration. Vikander infuses each of her character with a distinct personality; her Essel is rather sweet while her lady of the castle is overtly self satisfied about how smart she is. She also has an encounter with Gawain that ends rather awkwardly for everyone. Choudhury as Gawain’s mother has freaky moments that show she is pulling supernatural strings behind the whole situation. However, it’s never explained why she would put her kid in mortal danger, aside from that she’s annoyed he’s hanging out in a brothel. As the elderly King Arthur, Harris plays a feeble old man rather well, saying at one point he wishes he could take out the Green Knight himself but his body has failed him.
The titular Green Knight himself is basically only in two scenes but it’s absolutely gangbusters. Ineson’s vocal delivery is gravelly, and the makeup used to create the Green Knight is freaky looking. It’s basically like if a rotted old tree decided to grow legs, arms and ride a horse. The first scene in the court is marked by long periods of silence where the Green Knight unexpectedly lays down it’s weapon as Gawain considers what he should do. When Gawain finally confronts the Green Knight again after the long year, it’s a great scene with some of the best performance stuff by Patel as Gawain cowers at his fate. The Green Knight is brutally matter of fact about what is going to happen, which makes it even more grim.
Overall, The Green Knight is a wild, wacky and weird take on a famous Arthurian Legend. It is a horror story that plays out in slow motion, even if sometimes it is a bit too slow. With lots of interesting encounters along the way and an ending that packs a twisted punch, this is worth checking out.
The Green Knight
Director: David Lowery
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Anaïs Rizzo, Atheena Frizzell, Barry Keoghan and Dev Patel.