The Green Knight
If there’s a very “faux” feeling to The Green Knight, that its pretensions towards depth and resonance are little more than stylistic veneer, that might be swiftly explained by writer-director David Lowery’s inspiration: he seized upon the idea while building a Willow diorama in his backyard. As we all know, or should, Willow’s more than a little bit shit. I mean, Little Ronnie Howard directed it. The Green Knight, overburdened and super inflated by a sense of its own importance, is a little bit that too, maybe. Certainly ponderous, portentous and other words beginning with po-.
Consequently, The Green Knight makes for a looooong 130 minutes, Lowery thinking it cute to configure his protagonist’s challenge along the lines of a vision quest, a pseudo-spiritual journey where the literal blurs with the subjective. Arthurian legends lend themselves to such depictions to a degree, and Boorman’s Excalibur largely made a positive of this approach without sacrificing the essential dramatic integrity of the text(s). Gawain’s travels find him encountering nudist giants, talking foxes and ghostly maidens, but Lowery systematically undercuts the uncanny or fantastical nature of such events by, for example, having our protagonist ingest some mushrooms prior to meeting the giants (in itself, this scene feels like Lowery’s grasping incontinently for an Aronofsky Noah moment). On the one hand, the mushrooms may be seen to suggest a “real world” base line. But then, we’ve also see Gawain hallucinate his own decayed corpse when he was tied up.
One is invited to apply dream logic to his odyssey because it’s so wilfully listless, undramatic and meandering. Some viewers have found this pose rewarding of meaning, doubtless in the way latter-day Malick, in all his introspective pomp, invites existential reflection. But the problem with this approach, and the reason Malick has rather fallen off this once-lofty perch, is that with the studiously subjective, the entire proceedings are rendered as meaningful or meaningless as you wish. Rather like watching any given (terrible) movie stoned, its actually integrity is irrelevant.
Who killed Winifred? Where did the axe in her room come from? What is the significance of Alicia Vikander playing both Essel and the Lady? What were mum’s intentions? For Gawain to prove his greatness (in the tale, it is the reverse, by way of undermining the knights’ greatness. And, of course, Gawain’s mother is Morgause, rather than her sister Morgan Le Fay; there’s no intimation either that Joel Edgerton’s Lord is supposed to be the Green Knight)? Did Gawain even go on a quest, or was it all a dream? Come the last fifteen minutes and their slightly fatuous, Last Temptation of Christ-aping vision of an unlived life, one that is explicitly not real, you’ll have long since stopped caring, because the picture so resists interrogation. Instead, it embraces a shallow, surface-level appreciation of its “mood” of inquiry. It’s faux-deep, essentially.
It doesn’t help any prospective investment that Gawain’s a tiresome dupe; while the movie retains the beats of the legend, it’s a deconstruction in that Gawain himself is without merit. As embodied by Patel, the knight is a resolutely beta male – nothing here suggests “formidable” – which means there’s never any doubt he’s the kind of guy who can get beaten up by demonic man-child Barry Keoghan (I shudder to think how Martin McDonagh intends to use him in the upcoming, wonderfully titled, The Banshees of Inisherin). Sir Gawain’s resolute incompetence quickly becomes tiresome. This is less chivalric romance than it is akin to watching Frank Spencer in the Dark Ages, minus the roller skates. Or brave, brave Sir Robin. Rather than mirth, though, we privy to Patel’s puzzled ineptitude (a good tester of this sort of fare is, how much improved would it be with prime Bruce Campbell as the baffled hero?)
This is the key to The Green Knight’s failure, I feel. There are other elements – certainly, ones that can overtake any other conversation, and they will – that I will come to, but there’s more than enough richness in the poem to make a satisfying adaptation that feels fresh, rather than one determined to test the patience. I suspect Lowery, something of an indie-mainstream multi-tasker (he made both the Pete’s Dragon remake – pretty good – and A Ghost Story), is verging on the kind of dexterity that detracts from any belief in an actual sensibility. You can see this with earlier indie darlings like Richard Linklater, David O Russell and David Gordon Green, whereby the more adaptable they become, the less convincing is any pretence of prevailing artistry. In Lowery’s case, The Green Knight reeks of imitation, a Xerox of an arthouse approach every bit as calculated as a Jerry Bruckheimer’s King Arthur (probably more so, given that shambles).
There are elements here I could vaguely get on board with. Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is frequently striking, even as it favours the grey, washed-out tones of apocalyptic fare (such as The Road) when there isn’t something in the frame to attract the eye. The Christmas game – about the only time you’ll hear anything relating to Christ mentioned, let alone the religion at the heart of these tales – is well staged, and much of the design work (certainly The Green Knight) is strong. Ralph Ineson is dispassionately imposing as the Knight (and a reason to suspect Lowery, both with setting and ambient-horror vibe, was influenced by Robert Eggers’ films). Sean Harris as a haggard King Arthur and Kate Dickie as a decidedly drawn Guinevere are distinctly de-pomped figures of legend. I dug the talking fox. In and of themselves, the encounters with Winifred (Erin Kellyman) and the Lord and Lady are worthwhile, but in the context of Lowery’s telling, they feel more like place holders, biding time until we get to the Green Knight. The longer you can stretch out the tale, the better it must be, by necessity (just look at Midsommer).
One might be tempted to look for deconstruction of the heroic (male) archetype here, but as already noted, Gawain isn’t even presented as masquerading as noble or righteous or brave in the first place. The undifferentiated inadequacy, whether he’s being whipped by Keoghan or cumming in his sheets – “You are no knight” says the Lady, clearly expecting something more sustained; such performative failure can also be seen in Rules Don’t Apply – quickly becomes tiresome.
I would, of course, be remiss not to mention The Green Knight’s very woke casting. Not least because a sign of how preternaturally woke you are is to conspicuously avoid mentioning Dev Patel’s unlikely Sir Gawain in a review (along with his mum Morgan le Fay, played by Sarita Choudhury). Or if you do mention him, be sure to gush over how positive the presentism is. But probably don’t use the word presentism, as it’s front-loaded with negatives. It goes without saying, however, that if you find an Indian Arthurian knight remotely distracting or are, in any way, not fully on board with the thinking behind the choice, then you’re an unalloyed racist. There’s no middle ground or scepticism allowed when mulling the long-term goals of wokeism. Which is, of course, key to its successful implementation.
Objections to any objection are inevitably very restricted in scope. Whataboutism is common. So yes, Joel Edgerton (again, and only one offender in that cast) is ridiculous in Exodus: Gods and Kings. The difference is that one’s fair game and the other’s off limits. One is “repairing” the balance, the other perpetuating it. Sure, you can aver that The Green Knight is fantasy – you could say the same of Exodus, though – and/or there were people of colour during this mythical/quasi-mythical period (in which case, why is this not a movie about Sir Morien?)
Then there are also ones that sound spurious but are closer to the ultimate agenda of what is, in its loosest sense, simply the latest Hegelian Dialectic. Such as creating inclusivity for a changing societal demographic in terms of mouldy British myths and heritage, be it Dickens or Arthurian legend (the irony of this is that the few who will even watch and argue over these movies are invariably the white, privileged middle class, the same ones the Great Reset intends to dispense with, amongst many others).
Lowery’s choice is designed to create a disconnect, but the disconnect is categorised by those who observe it and approve, and so claim there was none – because they recognise this agenda is much needed, guilty as they are of such inequalities simply by breathing – and those who are racist. As for suggesting Lowery, as some have, was simply choosing the best person for the job, if I were to be kind, I’d suggest that’s naïve in the extreme. Almost as naïve as genuinely believing the movement is actually designed for societal betterment. Most likely, it’s wilfully obtuse.
As Michael Rectenwald notes, “Wokeness works on the majority, the supposed beneficiaries of injustice. It does so by making the majority understand that it has benefited from ‘privilege’ and preference—based on skin colour (whiteness), gender (patriarchy), sexual proclivity (heteronormativity), birthplace (colonialism, imperialism, and first worldism), gender identity (cis gender privilege), and the domination of nature (speciesism)—to name some of the major culprits”. Its underlying mechanism is one of forfeiture, “habituating the majority to the reduced expectations… the propertyless future… of the Great Reset…” (in so doing, wokeness contrasts with socialism-communism, which “promises benefits, not deficits”). Rectenwald’s analysis barely broaches the transhumanist side of this equation, less still the projected vastly decreased population the intended cull will leave behind (much easier to stir a smaller pot, particular one with augmented ingredients). Most will blanche at such an extreme analysis – which is, of course, expected – preferring the safe, unprovocative neutrality, whereby “unapologetic, noncompliant dissenters are figured as regressive, reactionary, racist, white supremacist”.
Too much baggage for a tale of knights with dear feckless Dev? The decisions made in The Green Knight are less egregious than the frankly absurd The Personal History of David Copperfield, also with Dev as presentism’s golden boy; this is a fantasy movie, which tempers somewhat the incongruence found in retelling a period Dickens. It would doubtless be possible to make a non-woke The Green Knight – but a good adaptation – but that isn’t happening any time soon. It also isn’t as if seriously wrong-headed decisions are a rarity when it comes to Arthurian adaptations. Clive Owen as King Arthur, for example.
The Green Knight isn’t a good movie, to which extent, its wokeness is neither here nor there. Which, in its limited favour, is at least very far from always the case with woke Hollywood. That it’s being labelled in any way as deep or searching or profound probably ought to be the bigger talking point, serving to emphasise how thin on the ground any such sustenance is in modern moviemaking.