J Taylor-Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
David Lowery's medieval story of a festive quest initially presents itself as one that is soaked in courage and loyalty and all things a knight should be, which, to a point, is correct. In fact, this claim isn't at all incorrect, it's just not the full extent of what the film is about.
My admiration for David Lowery is, as I've never hesitated to express before, huge, and so much of that comes from his ability to tell a story that works in so many different ways, operating on multiple levels seamlessly. He did it with A Ghost Story, expressing a deep fear of death whilst telling a tragic love story that spans the breadth of time itself; he did it with The Old Man and the Gun, exploring age and deterioration through a story of crime; it's a storytelling prowess that has found itself in all of his films, arguably in increasing amounts, with the pinnacle of such prowess (so far) finding itself in the deceptively murky waters of The Green Knight.
For those who start The Green Knight hoping for a mud-laden adventure with giants and axe-wielding tree people, that'll be all the film is; it'll be slow and it'll be shallow, which is to be expected when one only receives the surface level of a film whose rather spiritual story is communicated through nuanced imagery and subtly placed sequences that could be likened to the archetype of pure cinema. It's fair to say that those going in expecting the aforementioned mud-laden romp will be disappointed, those expecting a hyperfocused character study which just so happens to be set during the times of King Arthur will be the ones who get the most out of this, they will be the ones to pick up on the true story of The Green Knight, one of parental tension and maternal fear.
Almost hesitantly, Lowery injects the presence of Morgan le Faye into scenes throughout the film. Despite the appearance of Sarita Choudhury, who plays the part, is minimal, the story she sets up, in my eyes, warrants her being named the second biggest subject in the film. Towards the beginning of the film in a Disneyesque sequence, Gawain is depicted with a laddish attitude towards life, Lowery presents the spectator with a snow-covered scene that holds a quiet beauty, a moment that we discover Gawain is missing as the camera slowly reveals that this image is the view from Gawain's window, which he faces away from, sleeping. Keeping this character introduction in mind whilst remembering the first words spoken in the film, by none other than Le Faye, reveals the true driving force behind the actions taken in the film.
"Look, see a world that holds more wonders since any that the world was born."
Morgan le Faye is a character who wants nothing more than for her son to wake up and live, she wants him to live his own life without fear of death but to embrace the moments surrounding him. After telling Gawain, who has woken up late after a night of heavy drinking, that she "hasn't the guts for merriment", she sends Gawain off to make merry, instructing him to tell her what he sees. Clearly, this is a character who is dead-set on exposing Gawain to the world, so dead-set that she starts the whole journey that the film is about. In a surreal sequence not long after Gawain has admitted he "has no story to tell", Le Faye casts a spell whilst wearing a white blindfold. This spell seemingly summons the green knight, who rides into the King's hall, setting up a game that Gawain takes on with the first signs of something that could be considered respectable emerging.
Gawain sets off on a journey of his mother's creation, encountering a series of 'trials' along the way; he learns to think clearly under pressure after an encounter with thieves, he learns to help others with no reward when he encounters St. Winifred and he proves to himself that he is (fairly) faithful when he swiftly leaves the house of Joel Edgerton's nameless Lord following a close encounter with a woman who bears the face of his lover back home, Essel. Though it may appear that these are simple lessons learned through chance, encounters that, like in any other story, coincidentally occur to the unfulfilled hero of the hour, this is not just any story. At the Lord's home, there is a woman who remains silent throughout the whole of her screentime, a woman who wears the same blindfold as Morgan le Faye wears to cast her spell during the film's first act, always seeming to be watching Gawain, despite her apparent lack of vision. It seems hard to deny that Le Faye was an omnipresent force that manipulated his journey, keeping a close eye on the son that she wanted to call her pride and joy, with the vague supernaturalism guiding the future knight through landscapes that are heavy in natural beauty and, importantly, wonder that is captured magnificently by the camera of Andrew Droz Palermo. Headless spirits, talking foxes and enigmatic doppelgangers seem a little bit too magical to be chalked up to anything but magical intervention.
There is also the case of the protective girdle, which is made lovingly by Le Faye. It is said that the girdle would protect Gawain from harm, making him seemingly invincible, as seen in the film's most impressive sequence that takes place just before the final frames. In this sequence, the story of Gawain's reign as king is told, depicting his attachment to the girdle, which remains on his person constantly, a mark of cowardice and retention of his old perspectives, willing to go on living without risk, living without the acceptance of his mortality, leading to a limited life of hiding, never thinking on his feet, never doing anything without reward and not faithful to his wife or children. In the final moments of the film, there is a backtrack and, seeing that he completed his journey by thinking on his feet, staying faithful to himself and others for no reward, he takes off his belt, seemingly sacrificing himself to the game that he agreed to play with the Green Knight. At this moment, the Green Knight bends down, smirking, and saying to Gawain in a joking manner "Now, off with your head." Though explicit confirmation is never given, it appears to me that Morgan's plan came full circle and paid off, with the Green Knight sparing her son due to his courage and his acceptance of death as a guarantee.
It seems amazing to me that so much is hidden under the guise of an axe-wielding hero's journey, that so much subtext can be taken from a simple but effective portrayal of an archaic poem that has been presented to the audience by one of the most admirable and underappreciated filmmakers in the industry. David Lowery and his creative team deliver such a striking film yet again. Much like the credits of this film, if you're willing to work with Lowery's artistic voice and if you're willing to sit back and take in all he has to say, you will be rewarded, whether that be with a humanistic tale that explores the human condition or a post-credit shot that seems to reveal Gawain's continued existence and survival through a child who reaches for a crown that looks to have been left on the floor carelessly, implying the reign of a king who cares only for virtue, not for materialism or hierarchy.