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A Hypnotic Arthurian Epic

by Sarah Soliman

The Green Knight was one of spring 2020’s most anticipated films, scheduled to premiere at South by Southwest in mid-March followed by a May release. No need to tell you what happened next. 

Director David Lowery used part of his time during the pandemic to recut The Green Knight, to step away from what he described in an interview with Indiewire as the “minutiae” of the movie and draw out its themes of honor and chivalry. Whatever changes Lowery made to the film, the final result is a mesmerizing and hallucinatory reimagining of an Arthurian legend, and The Green Knight is now one of the best reviewed films of 2021. 

Adapted from the 14th-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the film stars Academy Award nominee Dev Patel (Lion, Slumdog Millionaire) as Gawain. Not yet a knight in Lowery’s version of the story, Gawain seems more like a layabout than a hero. He sees an opportunity to prove himself when the Green Knight (The Witch‘s Ralph Ineson in spectacular costuming and makeup) intrudes on the court’s Christmas feast and issues a challenge: He will award his axe to the one who can land a blow on him, but they must seek him out in a year’s time to receive an equal blow in return. Impetuously, Gawain accepts. He lops the Green Knight’s head off, and then looks on with dawning horror as his foe rises, picks his head up off the floor, and rides away. One year later, Gawain must set off on a journey to the Green Chapel, where his own beheading awaits him.   

As Gawain, Dev Patel teases out the modernity of this 900-year-old tale, playing a young man who isn’t sure how to become the hero he wants to be. He desires honor, but he doesn’t want to do what it takes to earn it.  

Despite its knights and swords trappings, The Green Knight is not cinema’s answer to Game of Thrones. Lowery was inspired by fantasy films like Willow and Lord of the Rings, but the extraordinary thrills of The Green Knight lie in a haunting magic all its own. Viewers go on an eerie journey with Gawain, one that hovers somewhere between dream and nightmare. It doesn’t just want to tell you a story, it wants to immerse you in a mood. Like Gawain learning to go along with the strangeness of his quest, you might not know what to expect, but you’ll want to give yourself over to it. 

As someone who regards David Lowery as one of the best filmmakers working today, I was eager to see The Green Knight in early 2020, and became even more so after a year of waiting and the rhapsodic early buzz from critics. When it opened on July 30, it became the first film I watched in a movie theater since March 2020. It was an enthralling reminder of what I love about leaving my home to sit with strangers in the dark, letting a film completely absorb me.

Whether this would be your first film back in a theater or your twentieth, you’ll want to fall under its phantasmagoric spell.