David Lowery’s entire filmography is preoccupied with the idea of myths - tall-tales, or malleable, personal memories - controlling peoples’ lives. His adult characters continuously choose to believe in these idealized stories because they help ground their lives in a structured reality. Without this, they risk facing an uncertain world that may challenge them. Or, maybe even chooses to exist without them.
The allure of Lowery’s films is that it engages with this idea of a world existing outside of the idealized myth on two levels. The first is a formal, genre-subversive one. Here, the traditional genre template acts as the governing myth that Lowery then collapses to demonstrate the possibilities of venturing beyond these codes. For instance, in his two Sundance-y movies, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and The Old Man and the Gun, he structures his stories around two well-worn templates – the Western outlaw story and the classic crime caper. However, he upends both to varying degrees, making the former a Malickian elegy to a bygone era that is unaware that the dust now blows eastwards, and the latter a wistful ode to another mythic form of life (and star-personality) approaching its end.
Similarly, his works at opposing ends of the mainstream/art-house spectrum, Pete’s Dragon and A Ghost Story, attempt to defamiliarize the familiar. This subversion is less evident in the former as it primarily sticks to the Disney live-action remake template. However, Lowery, very gently, imbues that film too with a Kiarostami-like humanism (Where is my (Dragon) Friend’s House?) that very directly asks the audience to be “open to looking” outside their set belief systems.
As for A Ghost Story, it pushes even further than his Sundance favorites to subvert set codes. The title of the film itself evokes spooky or spoofy. However, Lowery chooses somber. What seems like a classic haunted house story then becomes less about the ghost haunting the house and more about the ghost being haunted by it.
All this deconstruction of well-worn genre codes doesn’t simply strike as an intellectual exercise because of how well Lowery usually buries them under stories that themselves gently interrogate the same in very different ways. This is the second emotional level at which Lowery’s films work.
In films like Ain't Them Bodies Saints and A Ghost Story, Lowery chooses to take the perspective of two characters – Bob and C – who firmly believe in these myths, entirely unaware of anything outside of them. As their stories progress, so do other characters' lives around them. Our protagonists (both incidentally played by Casey Affleck) think that the world will remember them. Lowery insists not. Well, certainly not as fondly as they want it to remember them. This eventual realization evokes a sense of lament. Mainly for these characters' inability to hang onto these simple, idealized myths that allowed them to understand their lives.
In Pete's Dragon, the approach is entirely different. Here Lowery approaches the film through a lost child's eyes who sees magic that the myth otherwise obscures. Therefore, when the adults see their version of the tall-tale breakdown, there is a sense of elation, revealing the constrictive nature of these myths.
The Old Man and the Gun, most curiously, seems to exist at a crossroads of celebrating the simplicity of the myth while also hinting at the cost it entails. Told from the perspective of the gentlemanly thief, Forrest Tucker, the film relishes in celebrating his image (and that of star Robert Redford) by showing slick montages of him charming people, then smoothly robbing banks, and then escaping. However, his inability to materialize a stable and loving relationship with Jewel (Sissy Spacek), or have a potential reconciliation with his daughter, demonstrates how detached he must be from his personal life to cling onto that mythic image of himself.
His latest release, The Green Knight, a "filmed adaptation of the chivalric romance by Anonymous" (UGH), is an oddity in that it functions (exceptionally well) on the formal level while lacking the gentle emotional touch that has always helped hide Lowery's subversion tactics. In other words, the cinematography, the music, the production design, the performances all appear wonderfully calibrated to whatever Lowery wants to do here. Unlike his earlier films, the whatever the director is doing here – dismantling myths of chivalry and honor – is also much more overtly visible than ever before.
Perhaps part of that is built into the fabric of adapting a 14th-century Arthurian medieval tale that itself directly addresses themes of chivalry and honor. The original legend focuses on Sir Gawain's quest to achieve nobility through his encounter with the magically-summoned Green Knight. The inexperienced Gawain accepts the Knight's challenge to a duel on Christmas Eve, only to be surprised by the creature's immediate surrender. To demonstrate his bravery to the royal court, young Gawain takes King Arthur's Excalibur and beheads the Knight, only to then be shocked by the creature rising and asking that Gawain take a similar blow next year to finish their game. The tale then chronicles Gawain on his quest in which he ought to demonstrate his "knighthood" (the five virtues of it) before finally taking the blow from the Knight that would transform him into a young knight.
Lowery obeys the barest outline of this story, otherwise turning it in every way possible in his retelling. This is most noticeably evident in his construction of new characters, particularly that of Essel, who questions these established notions of chivalry and honor that Gawain seems to want to attain. In the elongated set-up to Sir Gawain’s quest, Lowery shows the two share some intimate moments, whereby Essel teases Gawain for his sexual impotency (“Behold, Brave, Sir Gawain -- chopper of heads, severer of melons, who cannot…get it up). Here, Lowery, via Essel, questions if this Gawain even possesses the manhood this age-old tale associates with knighthood. While this scene is handled playfully, the next moment between the two is straight-faced, revealing the central question at the heart of Lowery’s rendition of this myth. Prior to him finally leaving for his quest, Essel outright questions her lover,– “Why greatness? Why is goodness not enough?”
Most critically, Lowery’s rendition of Gawain himself, and Dev Patel’s impressively bemused portrayal of him also continuously echo this question. Again, there are several instances throughout his journey that foreground his aloofness. One of them arrives very early on in his meeting with the Scavenger. When asked by the Shakespearean wandering soul, “Are you a knight?” He softly, uncertainly replies, “Here and there.” As soon as the same Scavenger kidnaps him, and takes all his material possessions though, Gawain desperately attempts to refute that he ever claimed to be a knight.
The other, even more comical moment arrives later in his quest when The Lord (Joel Egerton) asks him what his main objective is of meeting with this Green Knight. Gawain feebly replies, “Honor?” The Lord expresses puzzlement at Gawain’s puzzlement, almost as if he has mistakenly expressed what has been written in his (mythic) script as a question rather than a loud exclamation. Promptly, Gawain corrects himself, attempting to show his confidence even though Patel very visibly displays otherwise.
Moving away from the dialogues, and the characterizations themselves, Lowery also codes his visual flourishes much differently than one would expect from a fantasy adventure like this. Two key instances stand out here. First, is the opening shot (post-the-again too overt, but stunning looking prologue) of the film. Lowery sets up a long-take, intercut with the titles of the production companies appearing on the screen. He uses these cuts to accentuate the time that passes in this static long take. Initially, there is establishing shot of the exterior of a house. It is cold, calm, and quiet. Next, smoke starts to arise from the house at the right-hand side of the frame. Then, a fire erupts. Finally, a man and woman, presumably central to the story, enter the frame from the right side, walking towards the center of the frame to sit on their horse. But someone suddenly shouts from outside the frame, prompting the man to take out his sword to go and fight with him. Rather than tracking this man, the camera now starts pulling back. Gently passing through a narrow window, it then pans down to reveal our hero comfortably sleeping before he is woken up by a splash of water.
The other, seemingly epic moment that Lowery defuses is that of him beginning his quest. Like the first shot, Lowery does tease the audience with the build-up. There is an extended montage of King, Queen, and his mother preparing him for his quest. The choral music swells as all three make grand declarations about his honor and chivalry. The big gates even open, Sanjay Leela Bhansali-style, greeted to inter-titles reading “The Way Out.” The expectation then is that the camera will swish pan from right to left to show Gawain riding out of the gates like a true knight. What we get instead is a low-angle tracking shot of Gawain slowly riding away from the castle as children faintly cheer him on. This shot does still retain a smidgen of grandiosity, framing Gaiwan as slightly larger-than-life. However, Lowery keeps on tracking, gently also panning up and pushing in on our protagonist. Stretched over the course of nearly a minute, Lowery completely shatters whatever sense of scale this moment is supposed to have in this long take, framing our hero’s journey as just that of another man.
I could go on detailing endless ways in which The Green Knight subverts the legend to essentially come to a similar realization to what Lowery’s Disney film did. That these myths are essentially rigid and binding. That they blind people to truly look beyond them. But, because who we follow now is not an innocent child, but a “silly man” who is unable to understand this until it is all too late, this film plays out much more like a nihilistic joke (is “goodness” even possible?) that lacks the emotional pull of any of Lowery’s other work. This emotional distance also foregrounds all his directorial tics – the deliberate long-takes, the surrealist flourishes, the 360-degree pans – and awkwardly over-written moments – most everything with Queen Alicia Vikander.
Whenever I revisit this again, I hope Daniel Hart’s magnificent choral soundtrack has worked its magic outside of my viewing of the film (“Now I’m Ready, I’m Ready Now” has been swirling in my head) to actually make me feel more of Gawain’s folly rather than critically observe him comically stumbling his way through the film’s gorgeously rendered landscapes.