Prepare yourself, because one of the great visual wonders of the year is here…
…Part of the draw for fantasy adventure films is that these movies take place during a time when every answer wasn’t at our fingertips, when a trip to grandma’s house could mean certain death, and when for all we knew, the world was full of magic and monsters. Writer/director David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a film that captures all of that wonder and is certain to leave audiences mystified.
An adaptation of the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and The Green Knight”, the film follows Gawain (Dev Patel), the son of the King’s (Sean Harris) sister (Sarita Choudhury), wasting away his privilege as a drunk, occasionally spending his nights at the brothel with romantic interest Essel (Alicia Vikander). When the hulking Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) interrupts a Christmas gathering with a challenge in which the participants must exchange blows, Gawain accepts, seeing a chance for honor. One year later, Gawain must go off on his own for the first time and travel to meet the Green Knight in order to receive his blow (a chop to the neck, in this case), encountering beauty and horror along the way.
And what we get is a film destined to be a fantasy classic.
The Green Knight is utterly breathtaking on every level. During an introduction before the film at my screening, Lowery listed a few inspirations for his epic, mentioning Coppola’s Dracula as a film that informed the visuals of The Green Knight. Well, Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo not only match the awe-inspiring visuals of Dracula, they may even arguably surpass them. The Green Knight takes us through lush landscapes, gothic castles, haunted houses, and more, with a sense of scope that leaves the audience feeling as small as Gawain in the presence of giants. The Green Knight makes you feel like a kid again, discovering all of the beauty and wonder of the world once more, as well as that fearful curiosity of the unknown.
Production Designer Jade Healy and Costume Designer Malgosia Turzanska provide masterful assists with the imagery. Everything from the castles to the ancient chapel where the Green Knight waits feels authentic and rich in atmosphere, with Turzanska’s costuming working as a stunning depiction of the time that brings the fantasy element to the next level. Even the most horrifying moments—and yes, there is plenty that will satisfy horror fans—are absolutely gorgeous. Lowery has created a fantasy film that is a tapestry of wonder, and which achieves what the best fantasy movies should in inviting the audience into a magical world that lights the imagination on fire.
The Green Knight is the sort of film that the big screen was made for, and not just because of the dizzying heights of the visuals or the blend of applause worthy practical and digital effects. It also sounds incredible. This film hooks the audience immediately with an opening containing that sort of narration classic to fantasy films, with a voice that is as menacing as it is bellowing. We can hear every crack and pop of The Green Knight and his earthy exterior. Howls, both human and not, haunt the soundtrack. Daniel Hart’s score takes us on a journey itself, an elegant composition that elevates the wonder of the world Lowery has created, while also chilling to the core with an eerie choir during some of the film’s more unnerving sequences.
No, this is not a horror film, but The Green Knight is a unique, genre-bending piece of cinema that will please fans searching for something darker in their fantasy odysseys. The Green Knight has the feel of a quiet ghost story, with a few gory beheadings to go along with it. Gawain also encounters all sorts of mysterious characters, from the strange yet endearing ghost of Winifred (Erin Kellyman) to a mysterious woman who happens to look just like Essel. Thieves, witches and other odd characters all populate The Green Knight, with excellent performances all around, in particular Patel, who brings a vulnerable sadness to the role in his frustration over wanting to be great.
There is a sizable amount of heart in The Green Knight, with themes that reach into the soul of the audience. Gawain is a character who strives to be somebody, to be remembered, but is terrified of the journey it will take to get there, and may not even be sure it’s what he truly wants. We’ve all felt that in our bones, that need to be something more than we are, and Lowery’s film asks over and over again what it means to be a hero, and what you are willing to give up for that honor.
If there’s any one knock to be made against The Green Knight, it’s that it is high-art fantasy that will most certainly alienate those wanting a more traditional sword and sorcery film. In that introduction, Lowery also compared The Green Knight to The Dark Crystal (1982) and that film’s patience. Well, in the words of Meg from Sleepaway Camp, if The Green Knight were any more patient, it would be dead. That's not a criticism, but more a heads up that this is not a film that I would call “exciting”. Splendorous? Yes. Eerie? Yes. Thrilling? Not so much. Lowery intends more for the audience to sink into the world of The Green Knight, letting it play out more like a strangely sensual and unsettling dream that we can live and breathe in rather than an action-packed adventure. So do not go in expecting something like Beastmaster. This is more the childish wonder of Willow, but with less thrills and a much darker bent.
The Green Knight is a stunning triumph that delivers on what the word “fantasy” actually means. Typical to the films that come out of A24, it won’t please everyone, but those looking to feast on astonishing imagery and a vivid fantasy world will find themselves full and asking for seconds.
The Green Knight comes to theaters July 30th from A24.
By Matt Konopka