David Lowrey’s “The Green Knight”(2021) is a powerfully subversive and incredibly enjoyable film. Adapted from the 14th century poem “Sir Gaiwan and the Green Knight”, the film follows Sir Gaiwan’s (Devel Patel) journey to face The Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) and achieve his destined greatness. Unlike in the poem, however, his reasons for doing so aren’t exactly rinsed with honour: he only fought the Knight to impress the King (Sean Harris), and he only agrees to complete the “Christmas Game” when he’s strongarmed by the expectations of the King and his mother (Sarita Choudhury) into honouring his commitment. The mother appears to be behind it all, perhaps because her son’s fondness for sex and drink is getting in the way of her ambitions for him, and the whole shebang is questioned by Essell (Alicia Vikander), Gaiwan’s girlfriend, who asks why men seek greatness when goodness should be enough. It’s a sharp, patient opening that, thankfully, promises a strange quest.
The interesting part of the film’s premise is that, as much as Gaiwan tries act the part of the courageous adventurer, all his talk of honour and greatness is shown to be hollow because he only pursues it to please his family. It’s hard to admire a man like that, but its quite easy to pity him. Within barely a day after leaving his home, Gaiwan is tricked and robbed. After stumbling around for a while, he takes shelter in the home of a woman who reveals that her head is buried at the botttom of a nearby lake and, understandably, she wants it back. When Gaiwan recovers it, he asks her whether or not she’s real or if she’s a spirit, and she asks him what the difference is.
This event is our first major taste of the mythological weirdness that Lowery completely doubles down on. The eerie, horror-like music, moody atmosphere, riddling dialogue and vague direction all create this feeling that you’ve been helplessly dropped into a dark, non-sensical fantasy that’s only going to get more confusing at it continues to unravel. Patel is perfectly cast as the “hero” carrying us through this unforgiving, down-the-rabbit-hole tale; injecting the right amount of immaturity and niavety that the subversion requires; he may be cowardly and confused but, then again, doesn’t that make him all the more human? Back on the road, Gaiwan befriends an adorable little fox that refuses to stop following him. He’s alone and scared, but at least now he’s got a friend.
The more I watched “The Green Knight”, the more I started to feel as though it was a big, moody mess that lacked a the heart and oompth of a gripping adventure. Looking back on the film barely an hour after finishing it, however, and I’ve slowly become convinced that this cold aimlessness was part of Lowry’s goal to undermine the warm certainty of the hero’s journey. Rather than emerging into a harsh, confusing world before eventually mastering it, this tale has our hero stumble from one strange scenario to another with no lesson learned or strength gained. This may be a little cruel to the viewer, and I doubt this will go down well with children, but it gives the film a refreshing power.
There’s a great moment that illustrates this. After failing to find non-poisoness food, Gaiwan and his little red companion come across a family of giants cutting through a thick fog. He asks for their help but, to his terror, one of giants instead goes to pick him up the same way you or I would pick up a spider. They are only stopped by the fox when he howls in such a way that all the giants feel as though they should howl back. Watching this moment led to a realisation: this isn’t a story about a man whose journey moulds him into a better one. There’s no rhyme, reason, or progression to the adventure. It’s a fucking fairtyale.
It’s upon this realisation that I started to really quite enjoy all the soulless meandering. Yes, I was confused, but I was also mesmerised. It only got better when Gaiwan stumbled into the home of The Lord (Joel Edgerton) and The Lady (Alicia Vikander, again); both of whom decide to play games with our hero. The Lady starts seducing Gaiwan by lending him books, painting his portrait, and asking him questions like ‘why didn’t you come to my chambers last night?’ and ‘do you want me?’. Gaiwan’s attempts to resist her quickly fall apart, and the Lord wraps him into an agreement that ends with them sharing a kiss. It’s all a bit too much for Gaiwan, who soon gets back on the road again.
“The Green Knight” is an almost perfect deconstruction of the hero’s journey as spelled out in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces” and utilised to astuounding success in great works of fiction from “Star Wars” to “Harry Potter”. The gist of this journey is that the hero feels a call to adventure and, in facing challenges and temptations with the help of friends and mentors, tranforms himself in a process of death, rebirth and reveleation. The hero then returns home a more virtuous man compared to the one who left. The film rejects this narrative by suggesting that, however noble the hero seems to be, pursuing greatness only leads to a hollow, internally meaningless life. Gaiwan feels this way deep down, evident in his desire to enjoy a life of sleeping with Essell and getting drunk, but struggles to accept it. When confronting The Green Knight in the chapel, he asks: “is this is all that there is?”. The Knight replies: “what else ought there be?”.
Gaiwan eventually achieves integrity by discarding the notion that his legacy matters more than his actions, and ultimately becomes a good man by dropping the obsession to become a great one; and, while we aren’t shown how this plays out, I suppose that it doesn’t really matter. The point that Lowry is making is that we should be more concerned with inner goodness over percieved greatness (the comparison Essell makes earlier in the film) regardless of what we gain. “The Green Knight” may not be Lowry’s best work, as that title still goes the incredible 2018 flick “The Old Man and the Gun”, but its success in subverting whilst also entertaining is further demonstration that he’s one of modern cinema’s greatest filmmakers — and I’m itching to see what he does next.