For hundreds of years we’ve been charmed by old knight tales. Stories of kings and lords, braving mythological tests and trials in the divine pursuit of wisdom, glory and honor. “For honor” is a hell of a motivator to rush into a life or death situation, but its always been accepted as the norm of a bygone era. I’ve always found it interesting and wondered if this was just a universal belief of the times or an ideology forced on the grunts and soldiers of a kingdom in order to justify country-spanning conquest. What does it really mean to be a knight?
The Green Knight is a reflection on these ideals, presented in a quiet yet epic journey covering the story of one of the lesser-talked about Arthurian legends, Sir Gawain. Set in a time long after a certain boy became king after pulling a certain sword from stone, Sir Gawain is a knight in training looking for his chance at achieving his own sliver of glory. One fateful Christmas day, a merry party at the castle is interrupted by the arrival of a hulking half-tree knight wielding a large axe. This Green Knight poses a game: any knight is allowed to strike him, whether it be in the form of a cut or a cleave. But, in one years time, the assailant must seek the Green Knight out and allow him to land the same blow that was delivered to him. Gawain answers this challenge, severing the knight’s head only to have his decapitated body pick it back up and ride off into the snow. A year passes as the validity of the game haunts Gawain. The king, seeing this as the perfect opportunity to test Gawain’s knighthood, sends him on a quest to find the otherworldly knight and see to completing their game. Along his travels, Gawain encounters bandits, ghosts and even some royal swingers.
The film is directed by David Lowery, who’s last release under the A24 banner was the critically divisive A Ghost Story. Most relevant in my mind for having an unbroken 5 minute scene of a woman eating a pie, the film is highly emotional and thought-provoking, yet painfully slow at times. I don’t mind slow burn films, but the relevance of scenes like this that personally just feel like time filler unfortunately dampen my overall enjoyment. Because of this I was bit worried that The Green Knight would follow suit in over-meditated fashion, despite the trailers showing promises of an epic supernatural adventure. While the film does take a slower approach than your conventual medieval epic, it’s still a fantastical journey that looks to analyze the knighthood culture of the olden days while still connecting it to cultural themes prevalent in modern times.
Leading the medieval charge as Gawain the wannabe knight is Dev Patel, known for Slumdog Millionaire, Lion and, unfortunately, The Last Airbender. Patel brings a a believable and realistic mixture of confidence and and hesitance to the role of Gawain, humanizing a historical figure from a time known for unflinching bravery. Gawain is understandably skeptical of the quest laid before him, being specifically skeptical on whether or not its something he even has to do. Patel’s Gawain encapsulates the central themes of the film; the imposing of the desire for honor. Despite having no real desire or reason to see through completing the Green Knight’s “game”, Gawain’s quest is thrusted upon him by the king himself. Not because of any impending danger, but simply for the sake of nobility. The king doesn’t even seem fully convinced the game is legitimate, yet sees this as a perfect opportunity for Gawain to earn his knighthood, despite the apparent promise of death that awaits him. The film’s commentary on this cultural belief is also connected to modern talking points like toxic masculinity, evident in Gawain’s decision during the Christmas game. With his weapon laid down and his knee bent, the Green Knight gave Gawain an open invitation to land any type of blow to him, promising to deliver the same in the future. While he could have simply given the knight a simple scratch on the cheek, Gawain decided to chop his entire head off. This overstepping of the situation is fueled by the pressures of masculinity that were heavily apparent back then, as well as now.
Driving the journey of young Gawain is the titular, mysterious Green Knight, portrayed by the gravely-voiced Ralph Ineson (The VVitch and the Harry Potter series). Draped in tree trunk armor and towering above puny humans, the Green Knight makes a huge impact on the film despite only being in it for maybe 5 minutes. What he represents has been a hotly debated topic for centuries, and while there are some slight differentiating elements between the film and the poem, his true role is no less elusive. Perhaps he is merely a pawn, a trial conjured by those wanting to see Gawain succeed. Maybe he is a representation of Earth; no matter how much it is ravaged and torn apart it eventually grows back, which can’t be said for man. Whatever his greater purpose may be, the design of the knight is prime to become iconic, utilizing a combination of practical effects, makeup and subtle CGI to give birth to a truly del Toro-esque creature.
The hauntingly serene visuals of The Green Knight are vast and awe inspiring. Whether the setting be medieval kingdoms or dark, foggy woods, each location is shimmering with color and a foreboding sense of something otherworldly. Practically built sets truly propel the film beyond the lackluster period pieces of our time, allowing the world of King Arthur to feel genuine despite many fantastical elements. Because of the film’s eagerness to utilize practical sets and imagery, the few instances of CGI do tend to stand out in a way that doesn’t always seamlessly blend with the rest of the film. Whether it be the fox or the giants, these moments never break the immersion completely, but they are occasionally jarring to those really looking into it. Set over the stunning visuals is a haunting soundtrack of Celtic sonnets and medieval compositions that perfectly compliment the film’s settings and elevates the movie to an experience unlike other films of knights and witches before it.
Where this film is inevitably bound to lose people is in its pacing and its vagueness. As stated before with that 5 minute pie scene, Lowery doesn’t mind taking his time and speaking through subtext rather than directly explaining himself. For those expecting something close to a conventional medieval film, you may find yourself disappointed. Missing are the intricate sword fights and large-scale battles for kingdoms one may anticipate, with the film opting to be more of a character study with the backdrop of the King Arthur-era. Many of Gawain’s encounters and the reasoning behind them are never explicitly elaborated on, leaving much of it up to the interpretation of the viewer, almost inviting them to read further into the myth. Yet, many may see the film as aimless or an example of style over substance. While I don’t agree with these sentiments, I can at least agree that the film does seem to dwell a bit long on some moments that don’t really have the significance intended. Despite these couple of moments, the film manages to remain engaging throughout as it builds towards its ending that may disappoint some. For me, it was a perfect conclusion to everything the film set out to cover in the realms of honor and pride.
The Green Knight set out to be a subversive experience that would not only do justice to the original text, but redefine the medieval genre as a whole. It succeeds with its stunning visuals, unexpected humor and its meditative themes. While the journey felt like it could be a bit more concise, it never fails to captivate for those willing to analyze and interpret its themes. While not the action-adventure many may have been expecting, The Green Knight is an undeniable success for A24, further submitting themselves as one of the best distributors out there. Like any A24 film, enter with an open mind and an open eye.
“Now…off with you head :)”
A Christmas Game
“Indulge me in this friendly Christmas game.”
Just as the Green Knight set forth a challenge of honor and glory before the Knights of the Roundtable, I impose a challenge of my own; dare to try this uniquely herbal original cocktail. Colored in a beautiful emerald sheen, the cocktail combines the classically medieval honey wine, mead, with earthy, bold liquors such as green chartreuse and elderflower liqueur. Slightly sweetened with a bit of lime juice and mixed with a few splashes of blue curacao to transform the cocktail’s color, the drink perfectly encapsulates the titular living plant through it’s appearance and herbal flavors. To top it off, I included a half rim of dried basil to add even more aromatic qualities. While drinking the cocktail with basil in your mouth was NOT a pleasant experience (though I did try), keeping it right under your nose with every sip truly makes this one of the most unique cocktails you’ll find on the blog.
- 1oz Mead
- 1oz Green chartreuse
- 1oz Elderflower liqueur
- 1/2oz lime juice
- 1/4oz blue curacao
- Rim: Dried basil
- Before building the drink, rim a cocktail glass with a lime wedge on only one side, then gently coat that side with finely chopped dried basil.
- Add your ingredients to a shaker and shake with ice.
- Strain into prepared cocktail glass.