Writer/director David Lowery has always been driven by tales of myth and legend throughout his filmography thus far – outlaws in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and The Old Man and the Gun, magical creatures in Pete’s Dragon, and the afterlife and the supernatural in A Ghost Story – so it was perhaps only a matter of time until we got his vision of the Arthurian myths and legends. Based on the 14th century poem, The Green Knight follows Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur who accepts the challenge of a strange green knight who appears in Arthur’s court. His challenge is for one of Arthur’s knights to strike a blow against him, then that knight must find him in a green chapel a year from now so that the green knight can return the blow. The comparisons to John Boorman’s Excalibur are apt, but do not fully capture how unique and demanding this film truly is. I’m fairly certain multiple people in my theater had no clue that they were getting themselves into a slow, reality-shifting film. The Green Knight is a gloriously uncompromising work, and Lowery’s most grand and challenging film to date.
Lowery has been one of my favorite working filmmakers since I saw Ain’t Them Bodies Saints back in 2013, me and my buddy Huston part of like 5 people in that theater. I knew immediately then that this was a filmmaker I should devote myself to. He has a distinct, lyrical sense of storytelling and has yet to make the same film twice. Watch any of his films, you’ll know what I mean. The Green Knight is his most extravagant work yet, demanding to be seen in the largest cinematic format possible. It’s a minor miracle this movie exists. I applaud A24 for not dropping it digitally last year like we all wanted and making me wait because the experience of watching this on the big screen is simply how it’s meant to be seen.
Lowery gets a winning cast here. I always love watching Dev Patel, so it’s always a treat to see him in a leading role. He’s exceptional here and particularly charismatic as you really feel the internal conflict of a foolhardy man struggling against his own cowardice in each interaction from Patel. Barry Keoghan is always great as a piece of shit. Joel Edgerton has a great time playing up to the more comedic aspects of Lowery’s script. Alicia Vikander is alluring and deceptive, and Ralph Ineson and his unmistakable voice is a great bit of stunt-casting as the eponymous green knight.
Lowery reteams with his Ghost Story cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo for some more magic. Their use of the natural lighting and environments makes for some stunning imagery. Nearly every shot in this film is just something to behold. They’re not afraid to let some long takes play out almost glacially, allowing you to soak in the majesty of this Arthurian setting. They’re not afraid to let the images tell the story rather than having characters explain it to you. It’s a risk that pays off. There’s a sequence near the end of the film that resembles a key sequence in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, and it’s magnificent. A dialogue free, captivating look at consequence and fantasy.
This movie cost $15 million to make and looks better than films with a $150 million budget. There’s a CGI fox that looks 1000 times better than anything in the live-action Lion King, a film that had every resource on planet earth available to it. A sequence with giants is a mixture of practical camera work and CGI that is just breathtaking. The look of the green knight himself is a marvel of practical effects and prosthetic/makeup work. Let’s not forget Lowery made A Ghost Story on a minimal budget of his own money and made it look as grand as it did. Dude knows what he’s doing, and knows how to stretch a budget. The production design in this is flawless, every little detail working towards an immersive whole. Every sequence, every shot, every little detail in this thing just feels so rich and full of wonder. Watch it, and you’ll understand.
I’m so grateful this film exists. It may be longer and slower than necessary for its own good, but I’d rather sit through a 5 hour labor of love than a 90 minute run-of-the-mill paycheck fare. It’s a great example of what happens when you give a true visionary craftsman a budget to match their ambitions. Through a slow pace that explores avenues that seem to keep shifting realities, Lowery asks one grand question: what is the cost of honor? Is the cost of courage worth it? How you read the ending is everything. As of now, it stands as my favorite ending of the year so far. The Green Knight is a masterfully constructed work, and further cements Lowery as one of the best, most singular working filmmakers.