Sunday, August 8, 2021

The Green Knight - A Real Hero

The pandemic stole a lot of movies from us last year, but this one (and Dune) hurt the most for me. The first trailer was atmospheric and intriguing. As someone who taught the “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” short story for years as a teacher, I was excited to see this interpretation because I am always on the lookout for new visions of old works. And while this film does take place in the appropriate time period, that’s where anything resembling a traditional interpretation ends. I’ll be SPOILING the film throughout my review, so before I get into it, I’ll just say that I loved this movie, and it lived up to and surpassed my expectations.

A Real Hero

The Knights of the Round Table stories typically make people think about bigger-than-life heroes and the mythic adventures they went on. One might argue that these stories were a kind of predecessor for comic books. These stories tell us what a hero is supposed to be. But somewhere over the years, it became more important to make these heroes nearly perfect and physically indestructible. Yes, even today’s comic book heroes have flaws and whatnot, but even with, say, Iron Man’s egotism, he’s still a billionaire genius in a robot suit. Who can relate to that? And how can an audience be expected to truly consider what it takes to be a hero with all the spectacle going on in the background as the world is inevitably saved? 

The stories of King Arthur’s knights contained plenty of spectacle, and The Green Knight certainly does, as well, but overall these stories were meant to teach the reader what it takes to be a good person by putting these knights in fantastical but relatable situations. Sir Gawain is the main knight for this type of story. 

The Green Knight, despite all its mesmerizing visuals, is a very simple story about an unproven knight being forced to decide what kind of person he is going to be. At the beginning of the film, Gawain (an absurdly good Dev Patel) is just there to have a good time. His uncle is the king, but Gawain doesn’t feel worthy of the Round Table. Instead, he spends his time, drunk, at a brothel. So his mother, Morgan le Fay, summons forth the titular knight to force Gawain’s hand. 

After accepting the challenge of delivering a blow then receiving one a year hence, Gawain isn’t changed. It’s only when Arthur tells him he must complete the game a year later that the weight of the situation hits him. Rather than charge off triumphantly, Gawain leaves as if he’s on the way to his own funeral. 

The film then turns into a sequence of events testing Gawain in the five elements of knighthood (generosity, chastity, piety, friendship, and courtesy), which he mostly fails. For a few examples: he gives the scavenger very little for his help, and has to be convinced to even give that; he succumbs to temptation with the Lady; he fails to honor the deal he made with the Lord; he asks Winifred what he will get in return for helping her, etc. Gawain is not a very good knight, which is what makes him so interesting and relatable.

Modern action and comic book movies, for all their entertainment, are severely lacking in creating real heroes. Writer/director David Lowery had to go back to the Middle Ages to find a story with a real hero. Who wouldn’t relate to Gawain’s failures? Aren’t we told constantly that “nobody’s perfect,” and we should learn to accept our failings? There’s nothing wrong with that, although the saying should be more like this: “Nobody's perfect, but you should still try to be.” 

Gawain being a bit of a failure isn’t the only relatable aspect of his character. The quest he is on, while supernatural, is actually something nearly everyone grapples with. Gawain meeting the Green Knight is mostly a spiritual quest in which he figures out what kind of person he is going to be in the face of his inevitable death. As the Lady points out during her cryptic monologue, green represents nature and how it will eventually reclaim the planet and wipe away everything humankind has ever done. In the face of this, what does facing the Knight matter? It doesn’t. What matters is what kind of person Gawain will be as he faces the Knight. We all will face our own Green Knight in this life, and we have to decide who we will be when that face-off happens.

Dealing with the inevitable death of mankind is something we’ve confronted since conscious thought began. It is truly a timeless theme, and it’s what makes The Green Knight such a relatable, though fantastic, film. Typically, a movie should serve as a diversion. But in a cinematic world clogged with spider people, thunder gods, talking rodents, tree people, and green giants, it’s actually refreshing to consider the inevitable death we all must face. And hey, The Green Knight was able to do this while still featuring a green tree person, a talking fox, and giants.

A Real Trip

If considering your inevitable death isn’t your thing, The Green Knight also works as a visual splendor. The mesmerizing camerawork and trippy visuals make the film a nearly psychedelic experience (Gawain does eat some bad mushrooms and start hallucinating during his journey). The film could very easily be enjoyed as a silent film. 

In fact, two of my friends I watched the film with (hey, Mark and Michael, do you guys ever read these?) commented on how the last portion of the film basically is silent. If you embrace the world of the film, it can be a cool, enjoyable experience. 

So when inexplicable giants show up, or the camera does a slow rotation either upside down or in a 360, or the fox starts talking, or...hell, the movie begins with the main character’s fucking head catching on fire. You’re in for some wacky shit from the get-go, and the film is much better if you just go with it and enjoy the ride.

The trippy nature of the film also means the quest is more of a mental trial than a physical one. So Gawain is not judged by his prowess with the sword. I love action films, but it was nice to see a hero’s quest that relied on his character rather than his physical abilities. Once again, it comes down to relatability. I can relate to Gawain expecting a reward for helping someone or lying about receiving something that will protect him. I can’t relate to someone hacking through hundreds of enemies with a broadsword, as awesome as that might look.

David Lowery has made his best film yet (and he’s made some great films, like A Ghost Story). The Green Knight is a very loud announcement to the cinematic world that we need to pay close attention to everything Lowery does.

A Real Actor

In a film with a lot of unexpected moments and visuals, the biggest revelation is Dev Patel’s performance, but it shouldn’t be. Ever since Slumdog Millionaire, Patel has been consistently great (before The Green Knight, I considered Lion to be his best performance). It’s not that I expected him to be bad in this movie; in fact,I consider Patel to be one of the most reliable actors out there. For The Green Knight, it all comes down to the final moments of the film.

Patel does a fine job of portraying a wayward knight who is afraid to challenge himself. But he shines when the film presents us with the possible future he would face if he ran away from his deal with the Green Knight and became king under dishonorable circumstances.

The entire sequence is wordless, yet Patel says more during these moments than in his dialogue throughout the rest of the film. As he does and witnesses terrible things (paying off his true love for their child, witnessing that child later die in war, watching as his kingdom crumbles all around him), his face says it all. This is a regretful man whose life is built on a lie.

It’s easy to look sad, but Patel conveys regret with such ease it made me realize that he’s an even greater actor than I thought. The Academy Awards are mostly a joke these days, but hopefully they can redeem themselves and at least nominate Patel for his best performance to date.

Random Thoughts

My alternate title for this article: The Green Knight - Giants and Gism.

Seriously, though, I was not expecting to see giants or semen in this movie.

The scene with the Lady in her library basically serves as an explanation of how stories continuously change throughout time. It’s kind of an argument for doing multiple adaptations of the same story forever...or until the green reclaims the planet. She talks about how she makes copies of books and makes “improvements” where she sees fit. This is what filmmakers do every time they take on an old story, such as this one, and add their own stamp to it.

I don’t know if I’m just on some kind of existential kick right now, but I love it when movies acknowledge the eventual extinction of the human race, at least on this planet. Hopefully, it’s millions of years away, but at some point (I think I learned this in school) the sun will explode and destroy Earth. It’s important to me to keep this in the back of my mind as a reminder that, historically speaking, nothing matters. This does not make me despair; it actually calms me down. I don’t need to worry about my name or accomplishments; I just need to worry about what kind of person I’m going to be and how I treat my loved ones. 

I was excited to see a non-children’s movie in the theater, and then the fucking fox started to talk. I cannot get away from talking animals! To be fair, this was more along the lines of Antichrist than Disney.

I used to teach a version of this story to seniors. Because of that, I loved that this was made at all. But I would have been very disappointed because I would not be able to show this in class (you know...because of the semen…). 

If I was able to show this in a classroom, I would have loved to point out the fantastical elements as an example of how storytellers would add interesting elements to keep your interest while also teaching a life lesson, and that each storyteller adds their own elements. Don’t get bogged down with what the giants represent or whether Winifred was real. It’s all just part of the story. Arthur asked for a myth from Gawain at the beginning of the film, so you can imagine that anyone who tells Gawain’s tale in the future would feel compelled to add some fantastical elements to add some entertainment value to what is essentially a “how-to-be-a-good-person” lesson.

My thoughts on Morgan le Fay are that she summons the Green Knight to help her son, not to punish him. She sees greater things for him, but realizes he needs a push. Also, that’s her at the Lord and Lady’s house, watching over Gawain. This is why the Lord and Lady fail to comment on the old, blind lady living with them.

Ralph Ineson is so perfect for this role. He has such an amazing voice. I still think my favorite line reading from him will always be “What went we out into this wilderness to find?” from The VVitch. But his few lines in The Green Knight are powerful (“One...year...hence.”) and even funny (“ with your head.”).

Speaking of that final “off with your head” line. I felt that the Green Knight said this almost jokingly. Because of that, I don’t think Gawain dies at the end. I felt like the line was more about how mental his journey had been. But, like the director has stated, even if Gawain dies at the end, it’s not a “bad” ending because he has gained his honor by the end of his journey.