Prior to viewing The Green Knight, everything I knew about the film came through a single trailer I watched the day before. After viewing The Green Knight, I’m not sure I know much more.
What I do know is that David Lowery has created a tale of honor and bravery often as beautiful as it is bewildering. On a literal level, the story of Sir Gawain venturing forth to fulfill his pact with the eponymous Green Knight is extremely simple. However, and as it often the case, the act of traveling between beginning and end is where both the journey and the film itself find meaning. As with many Arthurian tales, Green Knight is less of a singular narrative than a series of short stories offering a mélange of overlapping themes, lending the film to several possible interpretations, the most prevalent of which says more about the priorities of the viewer than of the film (I’ve even developed a working thesis of Green Knight being a vague critique of Tr*mp’s “presidency”). Of course, any film that begins with the protagonist’s head catching fire clearly isn’t meant to be taken literally. And this is part of the fun of a film like The Green Knight.
In the beginning, we witness a Christmas morning in the life of Sir Gaiwan (Dev Patel): waking up from a drunken night in a brothel and coming home to crash in his mother’s house before heading to make merry alongside King Arthur and his knights until the coming of the formidable Green Knight marks the end of the literal portion of the story and the beginning of Gaiwan’s journey of both denying and affirming his true nature. As with all knights, Gaiwan faces a series of tests, many of which one of his stature should easily best. It’s in these tests that we witness not only Gaiwan’s character but also the wisdom in casting Dev Patel in the role.
Despite being the lead in a Best Picture winner, Patel is as distant to the upper-tier of film actors as Gaiwan is to the legendary Knights of the Round Table. With his lithe frame and youthful appearance, it’s easy to assign Patel the same naivety that anchored Slumdog Millionaire more than 10 years ago (yes, we are getting old, get used to it). Much as Patel uses a beard to age himself, Gaiwan covers his lack of accomplishment with such false bravado that he enters into a pact he can’t fulfill. It’s not hard to imagine some part of Patel’s own experience in attempting to follow-up his breakthrough performance informing Gaiwan’s own struggles. Yet assuming as much would be a discredit to Patel’s strength as a performer, especially when he so convincingly captures Gaiwan’s ascension from fledging knight seeking a story worth sharing, to a legend in his own right. Where Gaiwan occasionally falters in his tests of bravery and courage, Patel rises, shouldering the weight of an entire film which would crumble if he were less capable of carrying it.
Of course, Patel is not alone in this endeavor, and while supporting performances from Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, and Sarita Choudhury are mostly solid, the film’s strength come most from the foreboding and gorgeous world through which Gaiwan travels. It’s telling that his most common companion is a fox so well portrayed that it’s near impossible to tell whether it is a real fox, a computer-generated fox, a mix of both, or when those roles switch. Green Knight lives up to its title not only by the presence of the titular knight, but also in the lush scenery surrounding its various tales; from long-stretches of grasslands, to crumbling mountains, to forests with layers of green spilling over each other, to a desolate battleground where mud-caked bodies wait for the earth to claim them. Green Knight is spectacular to look at, even when the narrative itself isn’t as clear as the images used to tell it.
Yet, as with most Arthurian tales, while the specific message of the film may never come into focus, there remains an omnipresent sense of larger themes, particularly those knightly topics of courage and bravery, but also the more personal ones of the way we act when in the view of others as opposed to the way we act when no one else is watching. In the age of social media, when millions of people do things solely for the purpose of posting pictures of themselves doing that thing (or watch movies they know nothing of just so they can write reviews about them), it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate one’s real life from the one they pretend to have. How many of us would be doing interesting, adventurous, or generous things if we weren’t able to brag about them on Facebook and Instagram? What are our lives when we can’t post pictures to make ourselves look legendary? Who are we when no one is watching? While never explicitly portraying them, and taking place centuries before both the phone and the camera, these issues are essential to our understanding of Green Knight. We may no longer live in a time of swords and shields, but that doesn’t mean we should live without honor.
The Green Knight is not a film in which a lot of stuff really happens. It’s not an easy or breezy viewing experience. Instead, it’s a film that gives as much as it receives. Like Gaiwan, we as viewers need to make a journey. We need to look into ourselves to find that which is important in order to have those priorities reflected as a portrait back to us. As such, there can be a thousand different ways to interpret the various symbols, metaphors, and mini-narratives which populate the film, and every one of them can be correct (though my political allegory could use some work). Although our words may differ, The Green Knight‘s intent remains constant. It’s not an easy journey to take, but those who wish to take it may find quite the reward.
No one can tell you what to value.