Few pieces of IP in the English language have been rebooted as many times as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th-century epic poem by an anonymous Middle English author known (from the title of one of his other three surviving works) as “the Pearl poet.” The Arthurian legends the poem draws from, first passed down in the form of oral literature, have recurred throughout the past seven centuries in every conceivable medium: medieval chivalric romances, English Pre-Raphaelite painting, the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, the Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot, a Kazuo Ishiguro novel, and a Sonic the Hedgehog video game. Gawain, the morally conflicted courtier played by Dev Patel in David Lowery’s trippy and contemplative The Green Knight, has previously been embodied on film by Liam Neeson and Joel Edgerton (the latter of whom appears here in a major supporting role).
The Green Knight is well aware of its story’s long history: The opening credits flash up the title in a series of old-fashioned typefaces, suggesting the evolution of the legend through time, and the multipart quest narrative is broken into chapters announced by playful printed intertitles. But though The Green Knight pays careful tribute to its literary origins, its approach to the material is nothing if not cinematic. Lowery is a filmmaker of images and soundscapes rather than of words; long stretches pass with no dialogue at all, only Daniel Hart’s eerie and roughly period-appropriate score.
The visual world the film establishes in its first few quiet scenes is a far cry from the grottily realistic depiction of medieval life in many recent films set in that time—movies with muddy gray palettes that stress the omnipresence of open sewage and the clammy chill of castle interiors. This film’s lushly colored surfaces, luminous forests, and geometrically pleasing compositions suggest not a sociologically accurate recreation of the Middle Ages but a vision of the world through the eyes of people at that time, a place where magical and sometimes terrifying events like the ones Gawain lives through were so woven into the popular imagination that the sudden appearance of a giant green man at the king’s court seemed more like the inevitable fulfillment of prophecy than a jump scare.
The poem The Green Knight is based on blended pagan myth, Christian allegory, and courtly romance, with a subtlety of characterization that still feels modern, and Lowery’s script makes the hero’s ambiguity even more central to the story. Gawain’s main conflict is not with the verdant bad guy of the title but with the monsters of his own fears about masculinity, maturity, and, above all, mortality. The coming of age that Patel’s Gawain undergoes on his journey is more existential than physical: He starts off as an undisciplined young carouser with fixed ideas about honor and courage, and he ends as a man shaken to his core by the mysteries he has witnessed, both in the outside world (where there are naked giants, enchanted sashes, and a talking fox) and within himself. This transformation would have nowhere near the resonance it does without the depth of Patel’s performance. He communicates both the fervor of Gawain’s desire for worldly respect and acclaim, and the doubts he harbors about whether there might not be a better way to live a human life.
The Green Knight opens on a home-invasion scenario familiar from an even older English poem, Beowulf. As a group of knights and courtiers gather for a celebration in the presence of the king, their revels are suddenly interrupted by the entry of a huge, nonhuman, seemingly malevolent being. Here that creature is a 10-foot-tall man (Ralph Ineson) made up of what look like gnarled tree roots, riding a coppery-green horse with a giant ax to match. King Arthur (Sean Harris) declares himself too aged and frail to rise to the invader’s challenge, but the hotheaded Gawain—the king’s nephew, in this version still awaiting his knighthood—is quick to accept.
The green knight lays out the rules of his proposed game in a gravelly bass voice channeled through the mouth of Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie): Whatever fate befalls the tree-man in that day’s battle, he will in turn visit on Gawain in one year’s time in a mysterious place he calls the Green Chapel. After Gawain beheads the wooden behemoth in a single blow, the entire Round Table looks on in amazement as the felled titan rises to pick up his own head, climbs back onto his horse, and gallops away with a demonic laugh. From then on, the clock is ticking for Gawain: In order to observe the code of knightly courage, on Christmas Day of the following year he must appear before the green man and accept his fate.
The beautiful chapter that follows, titled “A Too-Quick Year,” introduces one of the movie’s main themes and one of its director’s obsessions in this and other movies, especially his meditative A Ghost Story: the inexorable and weirdly subjective human experience of the passage of time. A puppet show for the village children acts out the tale of Gawain’s feat over and over as a wheel-shaped calendar marks off the seasons. As the spring flowers give way to autumn foliage and then bare winter branches, the young hero lives life in less-than-heroic fashion, growing more dissolute as the dreaded journey approaches. He spends his nights at taverns and brothels with his rowdy friends and demonstrates what a modern damsel might call “fear of commitment” toward his girlfriend Essel (Alicia Vikander), a woman below his social caste who, like his witchcraft-practicing mother (Sarita Choudhury), both adores Gawain and senses the inner turmoil beneath his unpersuasively macho exterior.
Second only to The Green Knight’s poetic and sometimes spooky evocations of the ephemerality of human life comes the film’s interest in subverting the machismo of the traditional quest story. After Gawain mounts his trusty steed Gryngolet and rides out in search of the green knight, the people and experiences he confronts make him begin to interrogate the meaning and value of the moral code that binds him to sacrifice his own life for an abstract value like “honor.” If he fears the idea of dying in the Green Chapel, if at the moment of his own prospective beheading he flinches away from the blade, does that make him unworthy of the renown he briefly enjoyed after decapitating the green knight the year before? Many of Gawain’s adventures along the road place the manly virtues of bravery and strength in battle in question. He crosses a deserted battlefield strewn with the rotting bodies of soldiers and patrolled by a shrewd young survivor (Barry Keoghan). A gang of brigands ties up and gag Gawain and steals his beloved horse; as he lies helpless under a tree in the forest, he hallucinates his own future as a long-abandoned skeleton. And a dreamlike meeting with the ghost of St. Winifred (played with plaintive intensity by Erin Kellyman) tests his willingness to complete a task, not for the advancement of his own glory but to bring peace to a suffering fellow being.
The movie’s last third spirals ever deeper into fantasy and allegory until, once Gawain finally reaches the Green Chapel, we are hard-pressed to draw a line between what he is subjectively experiencing and what’s happening in the “real” world. Before he faces his end, he spends a few days at the castle of a friendly and hospitable lord (Edgerton) whose richly gowned and widely read lady (played by Vikander with a refined air so different from the earthy Essel that she’s barely recognizable as the same actor) develops a major crush on the admittedly fine-as-hell Gawain. Their flirtatious back-and-forth in a series of bedroom scenes—she demands a kiss, then another, then more, as he is torn between his lust and his loyalty to his host and friend—becomes a part of the ethical gauntlet he must pass through in order to prove he deserves the hero status he seeks. These encounters are shot through with more intimacy and eroticism than your average swords-and-sandals love scene, with sensuous close-ups of fur-lined brocade cloaks, exchanged tokens of affection, and swaths of (discreetly) exposed flesh. (The lambent cinematography is by Andrew Droz Palermo, who also shot A Ghost Story; the magnificently detailed costumes are by Malgosia Turzanska.)
The movie’s last 15 or 20 minutes take the viewer on a journey through what may be either an alternate timeline existing in Gawain’s mind or a vision of his inevitably fated future. By this time, for viewers who have had the patience to tolerate the film’s enigmatic moments and long stretches of silence, the almost stonerlike sense of disorientation Lowery induces is part of the appeal. The movie’s final moment ends on a note that, after the ominous foreboding or what’s come before, feels curiously lighthearted: Has Gawain achieved what he set out for, or been changed so profoundly that he no longer seeks the same reward? Is it truly possible for him to master his fear of failure, dishonor, and death, or should he focus on returning to the humble human world and living out the best ordinary, unheroic life he can? The film ends just a beat too early to settle these questions, cutting to an image of its own title carved into a tree stump overgrown with mossy green—the color of new life, as one character observed earlier in the movie, but also the hue of death, corruption, and rot.
People seeking a summer action thriller in The Green Knight will be puzzled and perhaps annoyed by this irresolute final shot. But those who are open to a slower, weirder experience at the movies will leave with their brains abuzz at the movie’s intoxicating open-endedness. “I cannot tell everything in my tale at this time,” warns the narrator in a line near the end of the Gawain poem, hinting at depths beneath the surface that the reader will simply have to imagine. Similarly, Lowery’s elusive adaptation withholds its meaning up to and beyond that final image of a mossy stump. It’s left to the viewer to puzzle out the ending for herself on the way home—an invitation to another most excellent adventure.