THE GREEN KNIGHT was one of my adventures in mostly-empty Covid-era theater-going, but I’m always working on a million things at once and I didn’t finish the review until after it’s left most theaters and most people’s minds. And yet I continue, undaunted. (It’s on VOD now and comes to disc October 12th.)
It’s the latest from director David Lowery (PETE’S DRAGON, A GHOST STORY, THE OLD MAN & THE GUN), and it’s his weird arty take on a fantasy knight movie, released, as you would imagine, by A24. I enjoyed this at a mostly empty matinee, just as I did with pre-pandemic movies like 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE, HERCULES and KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD. But I don’t consider this to be in that same genre I call “fantasy sword guy movies,” and not just because he uses an ax. It’s different because the whole appeal of it is different. It’s more about deconstructing the things we expect from that genre, or at least finding a different angle on them, than reveling in them.
It’s based on an anonymous 14th-century poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And I tend to like movies based on anonymous poems, judging by the only two I can think of, BEOWULF and BEOWULF. I never heard of this one, but it has been adapted before, including as SWORD OF THE VALIANT, which I went ahead and watched afterward. And I certainly didn’t get this from the movie, but Sir Gawain (Dev Patel, CHAPPIE) is one of the members of King Arthur (Sean Harris, PROMETHEUS)’s Round Table.
In this telling he’s not a knight yet. He’s just some tosser. Enjoys whorehouses. In love with a commoner named Essel (Alicia Vikander [TOMB RAIDER], who I did not recognize in this role even though I did recognize her as a different character later). His mom is Morgan le Fay (Sarita Choudhury, A PERFECT MURDER, LADY IN THE WATER) and she thinks he’s a lazy fuckin slacker bum who needs to get his shit together.
Then on Christmas this guy the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, FIRST KNIGHT, THE HURRICANE HEIST) shows up. He’s cool because he’s some kind of tree man. Not actually green, as far as I could tell. But cool looking. And giant.
Is he bearing gifts on this joyous holiday? Fuck no. Just some stupid bet, some game with weird rules he has to explain, like when Forrest Taft challenges you to the hand slap game, except unprovoked. He says if anybody can land a blow on him they can have his cool ax (bladed weapon, not electric guitar, sadly) but the catch is next Christmas they gotta come find him at some place called the Green Chapel and he will repeat the same blow on them. (I feel you, Green Knight. The holidays can be lonely.)
Anyway Gawain takes a sword that apparently is supposed to be Excalibur (the sword, not the album by John Fogerty’s brother) and chops off the Knight’s head. Timmmmmbberrrrrrr! Put some tinsel on that motherfucker.
Except the Knight actually survives and reattaches his head. Laughs at him. Here’s your ax. Pleasure doing business with ya, buddy. See ya next year.
So Gawain fucks around for almost a year, then it’s shopping season and the king is like look, dipshit, time to journey to the Green Chapel, and he’s like oh fuck, I seriously have to do that? I thought it was a prank. So he has an episodic journey to his destiny, encountering different oddballs and weird shit. I like the part where he’s riding across a field of dead bodies from a battle, and asks for directions from some weirdo (Barry Keoghan, DUNKIRK), who has kind of a wiry, not-all-there TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE hitchhiker type quality. That’s a big compliment.
In another section he sleeps in a cottage he finds, Goldilocks style. Instead of bears he’s woken up by a ghost named Winifred (Erin Kellyman, a.k.a. Enfys Nest from SOLO), who sends him on a simple quest to retrieve her head from a spring. This part reminded me of Hellboy – not the movies, but the comic book. You’ll have to speculate how I could possibly know this, but many of his comics stories are not about saving the world from apocalypse. Most of the time he’s just traveling around investigating mysteries or having odd encounters, and they can be in some castle or remote European village and they can be pretty intimate and folk tale or fairy tale inspired, and maybe there’s a ghost or a magical object or both involved. And definitely lots of skulls and severed heads. This section had that feel. I like that.
With the fox’s guidance, Gawain ends up arriving in the area of the Green Chapel too early, and a nice couple invite him to stay at their castle until Christmas. This is exactly like the plot of a Hallmark Christmas movie except it’s medieval and there’s a magic girdle and the wife (Alicia Vikander, THE GREEN KNIGHT) makes moves on him and jerks him off and he cums too soon and she looks at him like he’s dirt.
The lord of the castle is played by Joel Edgerton (SMOKIN’ ACES), which made me happy because I didn’t know he was gonna be in it and he’s always fun. He’d made this deal with Gawain that he would go hunting during the day and then trade whatever he caught for anything Gawain took from the castle. I don’t get it but maybe he knew what he was doing because after this whole premature ejaculation incident he’s like “are you sure you didn’t get anything in the castle?” and it really, really seems like he’s trying to get a hand job from Gawain. But he only gets a kiss.
(By the way Edgerton played Gawain in the Antoine Fuqua version of KING ARTHUR, which I haven’t seen, so I don’t know if he had to give a hand job to some guy in that one and he’s trying to get paid back in this one or what.)
Gawain is definitely meant to be a flawed character and it’s about him learning to actually be heroic rather than legendary. So it’s okay if I don’t like the guy. Which is good because I really turned on him at the point where the fox suddenly speaks and warns him not to get on a boat to the Green Chapel. Gawain just yells at the fox and breaks off their friendship. That is so disrespectful because if a fox goes through the trouble to speak English you fucking listen to what the fox has to say.
This is a really well made and enjoyably strange movie with a strong mood and some cool storytelling gimmicks, such as a long montage exploring a branching timeline of what could happen if certain decisions are made. There’s some cool imagery including some giants – not real elaborate, but you gotta respect a movie with giants. The digital FX are by Weta, who in my opinion know what they’re doing. And I didn’t notice this but I read that they used old fashioned matte paintings instead of digital ones.
I know there are some strong anti-A24 sentiments around here, and this one definitely fits some of the common complaints associated with their horror movies. Less happens or is said than in your standard genre movie, and it’s way more about atmosphere, cryptic symbolism, surreal imagery and allusions you would only know if you read them in an interview than story or spectacle. At the climax there is not a fight, but two people sitting still and the sounds of heartbeats, breathing, wind and a babbling brook. And apparently a major FX related thing happened in this scene that was too subtle for me to notice. (Or I am not observant enough.)
Personally my ideal fantasy movie is CONAN THE BARBARIAN, with WILLOW in second place, and my favorite knight movie is a 2 1/2 hour melodrama about living as an independent artist, but it has tons and tons of jousting on motorcycles. THE GREEN KNIGHT is not like any of those; it’s a perfectly good, respectable and distinct knight fantasy that is not gonna top my list. But as with any of the popular A24 pictures there are plenty of alleys out there that it’s right up, and different types of movies are allowed, and it’s a good thing that not all of them try to appeal to everyone, even when I’m included in the everyone.
SWORD OF THE VALIANT: THE LEGEND OF SIR GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT (1984) comes from another company that made a name from a certain type of films – Cannon. Writer/director Stephen Weeks (GHOST STORY [just GHOST STORY – Lowery’s is A GHOST STORY]) was so obsessed with the poem that he had already made a movie of it in 1973 as GAWAIN AND THE GREEN KNIGHT. For the Cannon remake he worked with co-writers Howard C. Pen & Philip M. Breen, with additional dialogue credits to Rosemary Sutcliff & Therese Burdon; Sutcliff’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth is the basis for the 2011 Channing Tatum joint THE EAGLE.
In this one Sir Gawain is played by Miles O’Keeffe (ATOR THE FIGHTING EAGLE, TRUE VENGEANCE) in a blonde pageboy wig that makes him look like He-Man if all his sword power magic went into making his hair giant instead of his muscles. He lives at the castle and doesn’t seem to be respected or noticed by anyone until the king (Trevor Howard, THE THIRD MAN) is impressed that he’s the only one to take up the challenge when the fucking Green Knight struts in talking trash and making stupid dares.
In this version the Green Knight is Sean Connery, who was between NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN and HIGHLANDER. His armor, ax and hair are green-tinted and his face is kinda glittery like a guy that would be in THE WIZ. His crown has antlers on it, on account of he represents nature or something.
His challenge (which he keeps calling a “game”) is not to strike him, but to specifically cut off his head in one swing, and he leans down to allow for easy chopping. That’s not quite how I took it in THE GREEN KNIGHT, but from my research it sounds like this is how the poem goes. Even more than in the other one, the reasonable response is to not take this fucking psycho up on his bizarre dare. But King Arthur is pissed that none of his knights go for it right away, so he looks like a total nut.
But Gawain does it and there’s some enjoyable effects of headless Green Knight picking up a rubber Sean Connery head and reattaching it. In this version the Knight is supposed to decapitate Gawain then and there, but feels bad for him because he’s so young and boyish (O’Keeffe was about 30) so he says I’ll tell you what, I’ll let you live another year and grow up a little before I fucking execute you. Matter of fact, here, here’s a four line poem/riddle about emptiness and wisdom and what not and if you figure out what it means and explain it to me I won’t even kill you. How’s that sound?
So the story is about Gawain traveling around with a squire named Humphrey (Leigh Lawson, BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON) having adventures that are supposed to help him solve the riddle, which really means to grow from a spoiled babyman into a passable adult. A sample of his starting point is that when they see a unicorn Humphrey explains what it is, so Gawain tries to kill it. When Humphrey tries to stop him he says, “No, magical you said! That means it’ll taste good!”
It’s one of those journeys where you find traps so obvious that you figure nobody would be so stupid to fall for them, and then he does. For example, there’s a tent in the middle of nowhere, with a feast prepared, so they sit down and just start eating it. When Morgan le Fay (Emma Sutton, also additional dialogue writer under a different name) comes in and starts acting sexy Humphrey is at least aware enough to warn, “Hm. Beware. She is the Devil’s decoy.”
She tells him to go to the shore and blow a horn and find the lost city of Lyonesse. You know how it is. The horn summons The Black Knight (Douglas Wilmer, CLEOPATRA, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS) for a duel. He wears a metal mask and makes strange noises as they fight, so I thought he was an automaton or something, but he turns out to just be a dude. Gawain defeats him but spares his life and honors his request to carry him home to Lyonesse – where the dirty motherfucker points him out as “My murderer!” and they lock him up. But a lady (Cyrielle Clair from Jodorowsky’s TUSK and John Liu’s DRAGON BLOOD!) comes and gives him a ring of invisibility to help him escape and they’re in love, etc.
Meanwhile, The Green Knight is in Green Knightland or wherever and he’s mad that Morgan le Fay interfered with his game, so he fires a green light from his finger and she turns into a talking frog puppet, who then hits on him. “Stay with me tonight. I’ll show you better tricks.” We don’t see him turning her down so I’m pretty sure he fucks a frog off screen. Connery, you devil!
There are more duels and battles, Gawain meets monks, goes to a cave, a dwarf says “Pass me the bottle of hedgehog spit, would you?” because magic or whatever. An army comes after Gawain’s lady friend because “she is a most beautiful creature,” and he has to rescue her. Those guys are dicks. But, don’t get me wrong, it’s cool that they want to show their support for BLM.
Eventually he ends up at the castle of Sir Bertilak (Bruce Lidington), the proto-Joel Edgerton, and gets the green sash, is not jerked off, flunks poetry, has the duel. Peter Cushing and John Rhys-Davies are also in the movie. The lady turns into a dove. The end.
SWORD OF THE VALIANT really made me appreciate THE GREEN KNIGHT more, because as deliberately cryptic, arty and slow as that one was, it was way more captivating than this one, and doesn’t make any less sense. It also had a lead who was interesting, even as the character was meant to be flawed, which is very much not the case with this fuckin guy. To have a main character who’s a selfish baby who is supposed to learn a lesson by the end is a legitimate type of story. But at least in this execution I do not find it entertaining. I think for a fantasy movie the hero has to either be heroic or be cool, if not both. He could be a total piece of shit but cool (a barbarian, say) or he could be a weiner with courage and good values (Willow, hobbits). But for him to just be a total piece of shit who also is just viscerally annoying and dorky, that’s kind of a dealbreaker for me. (Exception: CABIN BOY, where both of those qualities are obvious strengths.)
And though this probly has more extras, sets and locations than THE GREEN KNIGHT, its much cruder artistic craft makes it end up seeming much cheaper and cheesier. This would not always be the case, but in this particular matchup between A24 and Cannon Films, A24 is the unambiguous victor.