The Green Knight

The Green Knight ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

The 14th-Century source material The Green Knight draws from is a rich poem about the ways chivalry falls short, and how men cope with shame in a culture that is all about legends & lore. Gawain is given a chance to enshrine his name in the annals of history by defeating the green knight, but this rash action quickly reveals to him how he has no control over the endgame, nor how he will be remembered. He then embarks on a quest to keep his honour, or rather create his honour, but the cost of heroism is constantly uncertain. He fears mortality, and it is the refusal to confront this fear that comes to spell torture for Gawain. In here are some really toothsome themes about how one mythologizes themselves and how to grapple with the shame of not amounting to a specific medieval standard of masculinity, valiance, or sexuality. There's something profoundly sad to Gawain wanting so badly to impress his comrades and liege at the Round Table, even though we know from the first shot of a town in the distance on fire and the later scene in war-torn country that the king's greatness is predicated on lies and dishonourable acts as well. He drifts through his quest, attempting to cling to his agency in his making a name for himself, but over and over he is forced to reckon with the fact that he is smaller than the breadth of stories out there — that his tale is beholden to the lives of others, different codes, and the ever-indifferent march of time. The most gorgeous scene is one where Gawain must simply wait for an entire day before the green knight, feeling every second of nature's pace — unable to speed up his way to a legacy nor stop the clock to prevent it. It is an immaculate shot of him in powerlessness; the peace of that scene is so strange, yet so noteworthy for how its profundity is lost on Gawain.

What makes it all so frustrating is that it never commits to a full actualization of these themes. The ending feels like an enormous cop-out, and does not at all allow the audience to understand the implications of Gawain's change of heart. After he removes the girdle, Lowery needed to show him beheaded (leaving one to consider whether this was an honourable — a knightly — way to die and end to his story) or have him return home to live out his shame/contentment. Without seeing the effects of Gawain's inner transformation, it calls into doubt what the point of his transformation and his vision was. It's also made all the more perplexing by the decision to make Gawain's mother both the one who summons the green knight and gives her son the girdle. Her character is then relegated to the fake-out sequence at the end. Why do we get no insight into her perspective on this culture of immortality/power achieved via great feats? Seems like an extra layer of confusion that obfuscates the plot and keeps one of the few female characters in a reductive villainess role. Honestly, most of the women in this film feel wasted (especially Kate Dickie as the queen). The Lady's speech about green's meaning is absolutely gorgeous, and that character is absolutely pivotal to the success of the aforementioned subversions to how men form their identities around dominance, sexual performance, and being givers/creators rather than receivers. However, I’ve no clue what's going on with Alicia Vikander's double casting, nor what the script is trying to do with Gawain's mother or the queen in his vision.

Not to be that guy whinging about how an original text is superior to its adaptation, but I truly wish they would've committed to something like the ending of the actual poem. Gawain returns home, having flinched in the face of the green knight's swing; he is sent on his way with a nick of the axe on his neck and carries with him the girdle as a reminder of his failure to accept his fate:

"This is the blazon of the blemish that I bear on my neck;
This is the sign of sore loss that I have suffered there
For the cowardice and coveting that I came to there;
This is the badge of false faith that I was found in there,
And I must bear it on my body till I breathe my last." (ll. 2506-2509)

When he returns to the Round Table though, they do not reject him. They incorporate the girdle into their knightly garb, choosing to ignore any implication that it's a symbol of weakness. That is a fascinatingly disquieting note to end on — to implicate the entire Arthurian court in this deceitful myth-making, where their shortcomings are swept under the rug and no lessons are learned about the limits of their chivalric code or human frailties. Not saying that Lowery should have done this all verbatim, but I was craving some sort of satisfactory repercussion to Gawain's final decision. I found myself waiting scene after scene for all the cryptic material to cohere, and just when it felt like it was about to, the credits rolled.

The movie is a visual triumph to be sure, and there's some really incredible pieces in there, but it's ultimately neutered in how it all comes together. It builds and entices, only to culminate in something that feels premature and insufficient. Really, it's almost like Lowery himself is flinching away from a proper execution.

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