Extensive spoilers ahead, all the way through the ending
In 14th-century Britain, someone wrote a long poem titled Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This movie is not that poem. It deviates in plot and character, and perhaps most significantly in what that poem seems to be About, as much as anyone has ever been able to pinpoint what that poem is concerned with anyway. The original verses are full of strange tensions and ambiguity, which is captivating—there’s a reason why the odd little Gawain story at oddly pagan Christmastime is everyone’s favorite of the form. It’s a wandering trial tale of morals and magic like so many chivalric romances of the period, but most animated by those tensions, by that ambiguity, and by the cold ax of death hanging over it. I feel what David Lowery has made in The Green Knight is not the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but ‘a Green Knight story’, a story in the manner of—a new odd work of tensions and ambiguity with a cold ax of death hanging over it.
I don’t know when I last experienced a piece of art that feels so contemporary while also so old, very old, old as balls. It’s a distinctly modern movie, far-flung modern even, but its galaxy-brained art design and pacing seems to have Moon-shot back around to being olden weird. Like you know when you’re looking at a lot of bizarre medieval illustrations, like REALLY looking? Like that. Or like being in Iceland, where you can practically feel beneath your boots how new the land is, hot stone still sizzling and crackling into the cold air, and somehow that also makes it feel like the most ancient place you’ve ever been. This movie is living in both 1350 and 2150. There’s a shot in this where the world turns upside down, and I felt like I was at the beginning and end of time, and it was always just about a figure trudging through a wilderness.
But when I say this movie is modern, I mean in aesthetic but also in scholarship. Lowery’s adaptation approach here is like, thrillingly confrontational. It reminds me a bit of those experimental theatrical adaptations where a company will take an old, out-of-copyright work and say okay, what if we change this one single thing at the very premise, how will that ripple out through the rest of the text to follow and re-contextualize everything about the story we think we know. The Green Knight upends not just the idea of King Arthur’s young nephew Sir Gawain as the paragon of chivalric virtue, but the very concept of chivalric virtue itself, all started with the deceptively simple move of making its Gawain not actually a Sir yet. The classic questing tales were for ideology, grails and whatnot, but this modern quest is now, of course, for identity. It is a quest for a question—who are you? Who are you going to be? Do you matter? And will you find out before your death?
I find David Lowery to be a very peaceful filmmaker, because he seems so comfortable with the great unknowability of mortality. A Ghost Story was so much like that, and something of the meditative Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, too. But I’ve always found stories that deal so directly with the fact that we’ll all die soothing; since I was 18 my go-to comfort watch has been Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. I think another part of why I so love Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is that I’ve always found questions more meaningful than answers, and Lowery has filled his Green Knight with them. One of the ways he’s done this is to drain the cosmic surety that its particular variety of Christianity gave the original poem, where, for example, we get a whole passage explaining that as long as Sir Gawain keeps the icon of the Virgin Mary on the back of his shield where he can see it, he will always find the strength and virtue he needs to lead him through anything. In this Green Knight tale, Gawain’s Virgin Mary shield is snapped underfoot at his first stop on the road—there goes that. Which is not to say there’s nothing of God in this story, but it’s of a different kind of relationship, and we’ll get to it.
First though, we had to find the right not-knight. I hope you all know this by now, but just to remind you, David Lowery sent Dev Patel a picture he drew of him on a horse, because he knew this essential truth: [Frank Sinatra voice] it had to be yooou.
Lowery’s Gawain has to have a form that looks like he could be very regal, stern even with the right cast to his eyes, but his limbs and brow just haven’t quite etched into that firmness yet—Dev Patel can do that. This Gawain has to be somewhat sad (Dev can), but not a sadboy, because this Gawain is a fuckboy, and there is a distinct taxonomical difference. The fuckboy will repeatedly let you down, of course, they’re a fuckboy, but a key part of the fuckboy is that unlike their sadboy counterparts, there is something inherently more innocent about the ways in which they are an idiot. They just truly do not get it. When Gawain says he will take up the Green Knight’s challenge to trade blows one year hence, and this kind and spacey and pale with death King Arthur whispers to him to remember that it’s only a game, we have to look at Dev Patel’s little face looking at this sword and realize oh, honey, you’re not understanding. We have to want to call him honey. He has to be imperfect, he has to be imperfect, and we have to root for him (Dev!) despite of it, because of it, because we have to root for our own imperfect selves.
At our post-show, one of my friends I saw The Green Knight with, a religion major, offered that the giants were the part of this movie that was most about God, and we were like Go On, and he said, like this: You yell out to God, help me!, and God is like, what? uh, and reaches out to you, tiny creature, but you don’t understand and yelp and cower in fear, and then you hear the voice of God, and it is…too vast to comprehend. And we were like…fuck!
And then I was trying to remember whether this was a full essay I saw or maybe just a single comment someone made that was so powerful it felt like a full essay, but years ago I was presented somewhere with this theological take on The Good Place that the way Jason Mendoza is to us, is how we are to God. God’s just looking at us running around going ohhhh my sweet disastrous dumdum creation, what are you doing now beloved, WHY are you doing it, will you ever learn anything, as we’re just like, “Molotov cocktail!” Anyway I thought of this with regard to the Dev Gawain, and I think this was when another friend first offered the line: “We are all fuckboys under God.”
Anyway as I was saying: you need a Dev Patel for all this. Someone who can play muddled human uncertainty like a clear stream. And, with a face so maddeningly beautiful every character in this film looks at it and credibly thinks mmm, gonna have to stroke that.
Hey let’s talk about HORSES for a sec. My bleary old grandfather’s favorite thing I ever told him was definitely the root of the word ‘chivalry’, which comes from the French cheval, for horse. Originally, it referred to a code of conduct specifically for people with a warhorse. Now it followed from there that this usually would be a gendered arrangement, but it was actually always more about class really, gender just being an aspect of class. Men with horses were expected to be chivalrous toward ladies, without horses, but also to other men who did not have horses. The idea was indeed rather honorable at its core: as someone on a big horse, you are quite literally in a more advantageous physical position, as well as material position, possessing this fine & valuable steed and likely other resources as well, and as such it is your duty to behave courteously and helpfully toward those without. A warhorse. (But as a synecdoche for everything else attendant.)
Now I will need to watch The Green Knight again (I will neeeed to watch The Green Knight again), as I have a strong feeling that there is even more going on with horse levels than this, but there is one particular paired moment I want to highlight. At the beginning of the film when the people of Camelot are headed to Christmas morning mass, Gawain reaches down from Gringolet toward his mistress Essel, smilingly inviting his lower lover up onto his horse with him, and she coyly demurs for a moment, then accepts his offer and swings up: +1 chivalry, Has Horse Can Pick People Up (literally and figuratively). Then in the latter part of the film, long after Gawain has been pulled from Gringolet and is now himself in the more vulnerable, horseless position, it is from atop a horse that the Lord reaches down in the forest, and takes a kiss from him. I think it’s notable that Gawain doesn’t pull away, he holds quite still, as if it is codified that he should, that he should accept this gesture from the nobleman on the horse. It’s only after the Lord pulls back that we see in the self-contained nerviness in Gawain’s face and his hand raising against the Lord’s arm how reluctantly he has gone along, but after all, the Lord had intimated that he is owed this from Gawain as per the rules of their exchange, and is he not?
I feel like this moment is a perfect illustration of how Lowery has been digging up the twisted roots of medieval chivalry throughout this whole adaptation. Because in the original poem there is famously a whole series of traded kisses between our hero and the courtly couple in the castle, but there, the drama is in how Sir Gawain will navigate the Lady’s advances within the chivalric code, and the text is clear that it is the young knight who reaches out and kisses the Lord each night to pass on the kiss he has received from his wife during the day. The poem’s Gawain maintains his power and agency in the situation, and so the chivalric drama of the kisses is just spicy and fun. But in Lowery’s Green Knight, Gawain has been stripped of all this, like his clothes sometime during his first night there. This Gawain, unhorsed, unknighted, is now in the disadvantaged position where he has to rely on the chivalric code for his safekeeping in these unknown climes, and finds that perhaps, he can’t. That dress it up in the language of honor all you like, it was always about the people on the horses keeping the power. I mean what is the “game” of favors and obligation between this Lord & Lady and Gawain if not just an atonal echo of chivalry itself! Spicy and Not fun now, pervasively uneasy, like so much going on in that house.
But that’s that sense of teetering instability again that characterizes Green Knight stories. Medievalist writer Michel Pastoureau would be pleased from a color theory perspective. The color green has historically been very tricky to fix with dyes and pigments, and so it was seen as a shifting, fae color, all around us yet for centuries bafflingly resistant to being tamed in our fabrics and paints. A figure all in green from head to foot would seem to know something you don’t, even before he simply picks up his head from your foot, still green.
And I have been obsessed with the way this production has taken the unknowable enchantment of the color green and magicked it into hiding right before our eyes. Obsessed with those posters with their jangling Stroop effect thrill of this text emblazoning “THE GREEN KNIGHT,” and it’s just all this RED. I’d actually saved that first poster A24 released that morning to my phone and showed it to everyone I saw that day, alight over it. A very distinct red-orange vermillion actually, again obsessed with how I can now say the words “the Green Knight red,” and you will know what I mean!
And then 15 months later when I would finally get to see the movie itself, I’d discover it’s still not marked by green, but ochre. I should have known: I’d pitched my friends to come with me to see, quote, “Dev Patel in goldenrod,” that hue already glowing from the trailers in cloaks and crowns and fox fur and a strange yellow fog. It’s a striking color scheme, unusual, there aren’t a lot of movies out there this shot through with rich shades of turmeric against greenish-brown and greenish-grey and greenish-blue and you see, you see how it’s working! The hidden green! How the green is being sapped away in the winter cold and the trees being felled for road and field, but green is still always creeping back into everything, given time. The waiting green that Alicia Vikander’s mysterious Lady speaks of in her unfurling, stone-cracking vine of a meditation, the green that is older than you and will outlive you, will take you back when you are dead.
I think a lot about Patrick McHale’s original story concept for Over the Garden Wall, and how even though they ultimately moved away from this overt framing, that close relationship to one’s death is still there in the bones of the series. Honestly, by my lights The Green Knight bears more in common narratively with fellow very old & very modern work Over the Garden Wall than it does the original Sir Gawain poem. The Green Knight and Over the Garden Wall are both structured as classic questing narratives, where our protagonist/s travel through the Unknown encountering strange and magic figures and tests, which will each teach them something they need to know to face what they ultimately need to face: the Beast at the end; their Death. Neither goes out of its way to lay out the workings of the world we’re traveling through, because they don’t need to: we know these types of stories. They proceed quite linearly, on literal paths a lot of the time. And along the way, each of us gets to find our own meanings in the unexplained symbols and questions encountered on the journey. The building quietly on fire in the opening tableau, what Saint Winifred tells him, Barry Keoghan’s Scavenger (all hail Spaghetti Boy! boffin of the off-putting!), the double casting, the upside-down portrait all in lichen-y greens, the blindfolds, the ending (THE ENDING).
My favorite kind of endings are ones that conclude on this hanging yet resonant note, open-ended yet reverberating. I have this habit where if a scene that could be this is happening and it feels like we might be nearing the runtime, I’m just quietly wishing, “Here, please, this is it, end it,” and when a film does, my joy knows no bounds—no matter the attitude of the body, the soul’s arms are flung straight up!
So when Gawain has sat all day silently waiting before the sleeping, changing face of his destiny, and is at last kneeling in the Green Chapel with the ax above his neck and his fingers digging into the moss and dirt and he doesn’t know and he doesn’t know and he doesn’t know what he’s doing, I was praying “PLEASE,” but then he runs, and it’s such a weird bummer? I love how everyone I know who has seen it was so let down by this, god narrative resolution really is more important than the hero living, huh!
BUT THEN. IT KEEPS GOING. And going and going, sooooo long and all wordless, nearly 15 minutes I saw one review say, and you have to feel all that time, time enough to be bewitched by the unsparing playing out of this Bad End, all so cold and grim and Dev Patel’s whole body language is turning as graven and stony as the grey in his beard, and then when he at last pulls the green belt off and his *head falls off* onto the empty hall floor, god like he’s been dead since the chapel, just biding time and he knew it, FUCK. YOU DID IT. This is the only other ending I could love if it couldn’t have ended with the ax in the air! Fucking BOLD, HARROWING, Wrow.
BUT THEN. WE WENT BACK. Just like the swing of time when he was tied up in the woods, turning back the seasons like the wheel of the year in the puppet show they play in town. He ran and got everything: the horse, returned; the knighthood; the kingship—and it’s all hollow. It means nothing. We go back to young Gawain, his knees staining green, facing his fate. Does he take the first honorable act in his life, and by doing so, end it? How do you look at mortality with grace? Perhaps only by being truly willing to let the ax fall, to tear out your own liver and not expect to get it back, can you be purely alive—even if it’s just for that moment.
Gawain begs the Green Knight hold a third time, and takes off his ill-got belt of protection. He tells the Green Knight he’s ready now, as the bark-bound figure hums his approval: “Very good, brave little knight. Now, off with your head.”
And it ended precisely on the hanging note my heart had wanted it too, but even fuller now. I love endings so much. I got two.