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'The Green Knight' Is a Hypnotic Gothic Tale Set in the Days of Chivalry

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A KNIGHT'S TALE Patel plays Sir Gawain in Lowery's modern and mesmerizing take on the Arthurian legend. - COURTESY OF A24
  • Courtesy Of A24
  • A KNIGHT'S TALE Patel plays Sir Gawain in Lowery's modern and mesmerizing take on the Arthurian legend.

This week, I went on quite a trip ... to a suburban multiplex, to watch a crowd of unmasked people watch a medieval epic that I suspect was trippier than many of them were expecting. From distributor A24, which specializes in arty horror and unsettling prestige films, The Green Knight is a take on the Arthurian legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from writer-director David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun). Lowery has made mainstream films, such as the live-action Pete's Dragon remake, but this is not one of them.

The deal

No one mentions Arthur, Camelot or the Round Table in this movie. In an unnamed kingdom, Gawain (Dev Patel) is nephew and heir to the monarch (Sean Harris). But the young man is too busy carousing with his commoner mistress (Alicia Vikander) to take on the burdens of knighthood.

One Christmas Day, a not-at-all-jolly green giant (Ralph Ineson) enters the palace and issues a challenge to the king. Seeing a chance to prove himself, Gawain accepts the terms and beheads the unresisting Green Knight with a single stroke.

Unluckily for him, the sinister supernatural figure is no more killable than Jason or Freddy Krueger. To follow the rules of the Green Knight's "game," Gawain must travel to the creature's lair a year later and receive the same kind of blow he dealt — one that will sever his head from his body.

Will you like it?

Maybe it's best to start by noting everything The Green Knight is not. It's not a straight adaptation of the anonymous medieval source, one of the founding texts of chivalry. It's not a rollicking adventure, a family-friendly fantasy or a solemn period piece like King Arthur. Finally, despite its dark palette and R rating, it offers none of the palace intrigue or rousing battles of "Game of Thrones."

So, what is it? Basically, a cerebral horror movie in a fantastically realized setting that is familiar and alien at once. The action is stylized enough to feel distant from us in time and space. Featuring singing giants and a talking fox, the movie might, for all we know, be happening on another planet. Yet the filmmaking gives it a hypnotic intimacy.

When we first meet Gawain, the camera follows him rapidly through a filthy dwelling lit only by snatches of natural light. We have a visceral sense of being in the "dark" ages, which isn't dispelled by the more opulent but equally tenebrous court scenes.

A gothic horror mood pervades the whole film, from cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo's strategic use of shadows to the dissonant score by Daniel Hart to the bleak landscapes. When, after many vicissitudes, Gawain's quest brings him to the hall of a mysterious Lord (Joel Edgerton) and Lady (Vikander again), their bright, airy home feels surreal and ominous — a tip-off that supernatural forces are at work.

The seductive Lady asks Gawain to sit for a portrait and proceeds to capture his image with what appears to be a primitive camera. But by that point, we're so deep in Gawain's head space that 19th-century technology might as well be dark magic.

Horror motifs are built into the material: In his eagerness to be a hero, Gawain has trapped himself in a situation in which the only way to uphold his ideals is to die. As clever as Jigsaw in the Saw movies, the Green Knight uses the young man's own pride to lure him into a chamber of horrors. But, just as Jigsaw has a twisted ulterior motive (to teach his victims the value of life), so the Green Knight actually has a deeper agenda for Gawain.

While chivalry is Gawain's salvation in the medieval text, the filmmaker has an agenda of his own, more of our own moment. If you're wondering whether this Green Knight represents the Earth, ready to teach its human despoilers a lesson — well, Vikander practically spells that out in a monologue.

But the movie is less a lesson in protecting the planet than a sober reminder that, whether we like it or not, we all return to Earth in the end. As Lowery showed in A Ghost Story, another movie that plays with time and space, mortality is more than an abstract concern for him. He has transformed the Green Knight legend into a memento mori, complete with a chilling long take on a corpse-strewn battlefield.

While The Green Knight will disappoint those seeking big-screen adventure, its mesmerizing oddness ensures it won't soon be forgotten.

If you like this, try...

Valhalla Rising (2010; Sling, IFC Films Unlimited, AMC+, rentable): Do you enjoy seeing auteurs go medieval? Before Nicolas Winding Refn made Drive, he directed this gritty, bloody and very un-Hollywood Viking epic starring Mads Mikkelsen.

Gretel & Hansel (2020; Hulu, Epix, Paramount+, Philo, Sling, rentable): Arriving at the end of the trend of fairy-tale retellings, Oz Perkins' twist on the brothers Grimm didn't get much love, but it serves up a similar cocktail of folklore, dread and cinematic artistry to The Green Knight.

A Ghost Story (2017; Netflix, rentable): The anxieties about mortality and legacy that run through The Green Knight are front and center in this earlier indie from Lowery, in which Casey Affleck is doomed to haunt his former home, wearing a sheet with eye holes.