Did you love or loathe ‘The Green Knight’? Either way, you’re not alone
“The Green Knight,” David Lowery’s beautiful, sometimes baffling medieval epic starring Dev Patel, has inspired equally passionate acclaim and dissent from critics and audiences. Times film writers Mark Olsen, Justin Chang and Jen Yamato sat down to discuss their lingering reactions to the film; how it echoes and deviates from its source material, the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”; and what it all means, if it means anything at all. (Spoiler alert: This conversation discusses major plot details from the movie, including the ending.)
MARK OLSEN: “The Green Knight” opens on titles announcing that the film is an adaptation of the chivalric romance by Anonymous. From the start there’s something unknowable, handed down through the centuries. More titles announce the name of the lead character “Sir Gawain” in different lettering, pointing to the idea there is more than one way to tell a story. Then the film truly begins, having set the stage for all the beguiling, mystical, perplexing business to follow.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying I kind of didn’t get it. I am not an Arthurian scholar and not particularly familiar with the original story, but I don’t think that’s it. Writer-director David Lowery and star Dev Patel present a young man attempting to find his way, fearful that he has nothing to offer the world: Gawain, wastrel nephew of King Arthur and not yet a knight, impulsively accepts a challenge from the Green Knight and perhaps assigns himself to death. Traveling to a remote location to uphold his end of the bargain, he finds inner resolve, purpose and grace he did not know he possessed.
There are many questions raised along the way, without many direct answers. Is Alicia Vikander in two roles or just one? What is the meaning of the ambiguous giants Gawain sees after eating mushrooms? Is the talking fox helping him or misdirecting him? What does his mother really want for him? And does he get that particular bodily fluid out of his enchanted sash? While the movie is undoubtedly crafted with care and precision, for me it was often itself stuck in the mud of the ponderous atmosphere it seems to insist upon.
I’m a big admirer of Lowery and his work, including “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” “A Ghost Story,” “Pete’s Dragon” and “The Old Man & the Gun,” which also trafficked in a certain poetic reverie. Having seen “The Green Knight” twice now, I liked it more on second viewing, in part because it was easier to attune to its pacing, but still feel it at best a movie to admire and respect more than actively like.
JUSTIN CHANG: “Respect more than actively like” actually sums up my own feelings about a lot of Lowery’s work, with a few exceptions. I borderline-disliked “The Old Man & the Gun,” which felt embalmed in its own whimsy. But I was a very active liker of “A Ghost Story,” which, as with “The Green Knight,” seems to unfold in some eerie netherworld between life and death. So I approached Lowery’s latest with high but not overly inflated expectations. And for more than two hours I sat there properly transfixed, bewitched, ensorcelled. Enveloped, too: The fog that clung to my glasses as I breathed through my mask seemed to merge with the mist rolling through the movie’s magnificently craggy landscapes (gorgeously shot by Andrew Droz Palermo).
Given Lowery’s delight in excavating old cinematic and literary archetypes, it seemed intuitive that he would leave behind the rural Americana of his earlier work and dive into the fertile and, yes, muddy soil of Middle English lore. I’m no Arthurian scholar either, Mark, and can offer few satisfactory answers to the questions you raise. But let me start with one: the meaning of those giants. Other than the obvious takeaway (those were some damn good mushrooms), I was most struck by the moment when one giant moves her hand as though to crush Gawain, who ducks in panic — a foreshadowing of the climax, when he will flinch before the Green Knight’s ax. But then the giant pulls back her hand, a compassionate gesture that reminded me, of all things, of that scene from Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” where one dinosaur decides to spare another. Maybe that’s a random association, though we know from “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” that Lowery’s Malick affinity runs deep. (Could this movie be his “Knight of Cups”?) In any case, for me that moment goes to the heart of something “The Green Knight” cares deeply about, and that’s mercy.
Mercy is something Gawain lacks at first, given the callow, callous blow he deals the Green Knight during their initial challenge. But he learns mercy over the course of his travels — even when he is denied it, as he is by the robber (Barry Keoghan) he encounters early in his travels. Mercy is what he learns to show St. Winifred (Erin Kellyman), the ghostly maiden who — in another echo of Gawain’s journey — has lost her head. When he asks her what she will do for him if he helps her retrieve it, she retorts, “Why would you ask me that?” Why indeed? Why should we do good only in the expectation that we will be rewarded for it?
I mention all this because as intoxicated as I was by “The Green Knight’s” not-inconsiderable surface pleasures (that lovely Daniel Hart score not least among them), I was even more taken with its intellectual riddles, its deep investment in its protagonist’s moral education. I know what you mean, Mark, about certain movies that seem to hint, ever so slowly and self-admiringly, at artistic and philosophical depths that may not really be there. But for me there seemed to be mysteries tucked within mysteries in almost every frame of Lowery’s film, and I found myself delighted, rather than irritated, by the fact that it seemed in no hurry to solve them.
JEN YAMATO: Asking more questions than it answers, or may even have answers to, makes “The Green Knight” an apt release for A24 — a distributor that knows its audience so well, they’re already selling a tie-in RPG game that retails for $35. Impenetrable as it may be to many an alienated, confounded moviegoer — Lo, an 88% Rotten Tomatoes rating! That C+ Cinemascore! — Lowery’s latest has given English lit majors an early Christmas gift: ample opportunity to dust off their medieval studies know-how. Woe to the weary “Green Knight” agnostic.
In all the chatter surrounding the film, however, few think pieces have concretely identified Lowery’s narrative intentions. And that may be because “Green Knight,” a slow boil loaded with oblique references to religious and sociopolitical context and interpretations of the original lore, seems more concerned with positing ambiguous provocations to its audience than spelling out the choices it makes onscreen.
That’s great for a certain kind of moviegoer, less so for others. Much of what befuddles in “The Green Knight” is of the “What did I just see?” variety. If you don’t know Morgan le Fay from her sister Morgause, for example, you’re already behind the game compared with those deeply versed in all manner of Arthuriana. Which begs the question: Is it better to go in blindly, or to have read the CliffsNotes?
The film is sumptuous and beautiful to gaze upon. (As is Dev Patel, in an enthralling lead turn.) It’s also overly languid and meandering. The stakes of Gawain’s side quests don’t quite add up to the life-changing shift the film’s ending projects, and those CGI giants feel slight but for the fact that the one Gawain cowers from is female, tying into how chivalric values go only so far in a society built around lionized toxic masculinity.
As for the talking fox? Well, chaos reigns. So does noted Arthurian scholar J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously published his own translation of the poem, when it comes to the genre of adventuring young men and the mythological beings they meet en route to some kind of fated, earned greatness. But for a fairly straightforward journey, “The Green Knight” takes a lot of runway to reach its relatively salient and still-timely point: How many fairy tale pickles, free rides and tests of honor does it take for a feckless playboy to learn a lesson — in the 5th century, or the 21st?
OLSEN: I have also been struck, Jen, by just the sheer volume of writing on the film, as those with feelings pro, con and in-between all feel a stronger than average need to work out those emotions and unpack the ideas that the film doles out.
The movie that “The Green Knight” repeatedly brought to mind for me was “Apocalypse Now.” As Gawain makes his way north toward the Green Chapel and his uncertain fate, the images become more stylized and psychedelic, as when the sky turns an acidic mustard-gas yellow. Having made his way from one outpost to the next, each weirder and more disconcerting than the last, the final leg of Gawain’s journey finds him peacefully paddling himself upstream in a small canoe. As with Frances Ford Coppola’s masterwork on war and its discontents, Lowery wants to reshape a classic work of literature to speak to a modern moment. It’s one of the ways in which the pandemic delay of more than one year for the film’s release has perhaps been a benefit — audiences are primed for a movie of confusion and ambiguity by the simple fact that has been so much of their own recent experience.
Which brings us to the ending, when Gawain at last finds his Kurtz. Having carelessly beheaded the Green Knight as part of their initial bargain, Gawain is uneasily prepared to now accept the same blow in return. Still wearing the protective sash that has been given to him twice, assured it would save him from harm, he has a vision of what his future will hold, one of betrayal, loss and defeat. He removes the sash to ready himself and it seems he has learned his final lesson, to stand truly on his own, accepting responsibility for his actions.
But was that ill-fated vision only one possibility or a certain destiny? If in fact the Green Knight does not take his head and end his life, what will Gawain have learned from his trials? Will it be mercy, as Justin has suggested, or a sense of humility and definition of purpose, realizing that his life of wasted days and wasted nights will lead only to a dreary end? I don’t know if a deeper knowledge of the original text, in whatever form, will actually help in answering any of those questions, as the movie continually folds back in on itself. I’m also not sure that this conversation has elevated my appreciation for the film, though it is fun to tease out these ideas and pet theories. Which is perhaps all we can really ask from it.
CHANG: And really, isn’t that enough? A movie whose questions and ambiguities persist in the memory strikes me as an experience to cherish these days. Not that I begrudge anyone their impatience with “The Green Knight,” which certainly moves to its own leisurely rhythms (though I have to say, it felt a hell of a lot shorter than “Jungle Cruise”) and delights in playing a confoundingly circular game with the audience. How the viewer responds to that game, that challenge, is entirely up to them.
I’ve never believed that full narrative comprehension is a prerequisite for admiring or even loving a movie. So while it’s fun to get lost in the textual minutiae of “The Green Knight” — the significance of this or that symbol, the ways the movie does and doesn’t deviate from the original poem — such analysis runs the risk of overlooking all the other ways the movie makes meaning. That includes its rich array of allusions to other movies, from Ingmar Bergman’s medieval epics to “The Last Temptation of Christ.” Like a lot of folks, I thought of Martin Scorsese’s passion play when I saw Gawain’s grim vision of the future, which reinforces the idea that “The Green Knight,” like its source material, can be read as a parable of Christlike suffering and perseverance.
I didn’t think of “Apocalypse Now,” but Mark, you’ve clearly hit on something there; what is “The Green Knight” if not a journey into Gawain’s own heart of darkness? Does this mean that someday, we’ll get a longer, undeleted version of those scenes in Lord Bertilak’s castle? I hope so, especially since Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander make such a dangerously seductive duo. Speaking of Vikander: I think she’s clearly playing two roles here. The fact that Gawain’s regal temptress, the Lady, is a dead ringer for his lover, Essel, is one of several giveaways that Gawain’s entire quest is a gauntlet of supernatural tests devised by Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury, making a powerful impression in an almost wordless performance). And as Jen alluded to earlier, Morgan is presented here not as Gawain’s aunt, as she is in the poem, but as his mother — a tweak that adds a layer of Freudian ickiness to Lowery’s witchy brew.
But there I go, getting hung up on the text in precisely the ways I said I wouldn’t. And why not? It’s part of the fun of diving into “The Green Knight’s” particularly fecund rabbit hole. The implicit connection between the Lady and Morgan le Fay is further driven home by the fact that they both offer Gawain that damned sash, an amulet of protection that becomes a kind of Achilles’ heel. It’s green, the color of “what lust leaves behind,” in the Lady’s own incredibly blunt analysis, which perfectly sets up the scene in which she, er, takes matters into her own hands.
But really, interpretive license is what “The Green Knight” is all about. Well, that and the overpowering hotness of Dev Patel, as Jen and I and countless others have already noted. “The Green Knight” is merely the latest film, after “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield” and others, to send Patel off on a quest for moral improvement. But Lowery’s film might be the first one to tap, wholly and unabashedly, into Patel’s great sensual charisma as a movie star. That’s another thing I love about “The Green Knight”: It’s moralistic filmmaking, to be sure, but it’s also sexy as hell. Or sexy as heaven. It suggests that there’s less of a difference between the pagan world and the Christian one, between decency and desire, and maybe even between God and humanity, than we like to think.
YAMATO: Yes ... I, too, thought of other lofty cinematic forbears as Patel’s wannabe knight traveled forth to meet his destiny. For instance: Anyone who’s seen “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” knows it’s not the viridian vanquisher whose wrath Gawain should fear, but the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog!
King Arthur and Round Table-adjacent stories have been told and taken from so often, it’s tough to make a new telling feel fresher than the derivative works that cribbed from them. And when you feel like you’ve heard a story before, the mind wanders. Somewhere between all the drawn out questing and the medieval shroom trip I wondered — what if Baby Groot crash-landed out of the MCU and into 5th century Britain, got old, got bored, and started messing with the locals?
But you said it, Justin: There’s a real dank, human lustiness to “The Green Knight” that brings the genteel, courtly ideals of Gawain’s social programming crumbling back down to Earth. That erotic undercurrent reaches its peak, of course, during his eventful stayover with the very friendly Lord and Lady. Performance-wise, that delicious, menacing crackle between Patel, Edgerton and Vikander at the castle was, for me, the best part of the film.
Whether you end up loving a movie, loathing it or landing somewhere in between, the name of the arthouse game is almost always managing expectations. Is “The Green Knight” an action-packed medieval blockbuster? Extremely not. Is it even that weird of a movie? Not really! Could be weirder. As a meditation on mortality, time and how we choose our fates, it’s a cinematic puzzle that demands to be met halfway between the screen and the mind. Who’s up for the challenge?
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