The Green Knight

The Green Knight ★★★★★

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

This review may contain spoilers.

I've long been obsessed with the idea of what makes a hero. This is probably what comes from reading a lot of Robin Hood and Arthurian legends and fairytales as a kid, not to mention Harry Potter and Star Wars. Stories are filled with reasoning behind heroes; their heroism written so that it is linked to a long ago trauma, or a sense of responsibility, or a fate and destiny inextricable from who they are.

"Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them," has long been etched in my brain, but as I've gotten older I've come to realize why this is a line spoken by one of Shakespeare's fools. Greatness is as inconsequential as it is fleeting. It relies on the choices made in front of others, rather than the much more difficult choices faced when alone. Perhaps this is why I believe that real heroes are those who do the right thing for no other reason than that they feel compelled to. Which, arguably, may not be heroism at all.

Gawain is no hero. He's a boy who is not ready for either greatness or responsibility. Both literally and figuratively, he's hungover and missing his shoes. "I'm not ready," he says, trying to drag Essel black to bed. He's not ready at all. His journey begins for no other reason than his own foolishness. "Do not take your place idly among the legends," says the Queen. "Remember, it is just a game," says the King. And yet when the Green Knight appears, Gawain jumps at the chance to impress, and accepts the challenge with so little thought that he only then remembers that he doesn't even have a sword.

Why does he set out to meet the Green Knight one year hence? It's not as if he even knows. It just seems to be what is expected of him. "Do you think I should go?" he asks of Essel, though he's not listening for her answer. When the Lord later asks him what he hopes to gain, Gawain phrases it as a question: "Honor?" The reality is that Gawain simply did not think of what would happen when he joined in the Green Knight's game. He thought not of consequences, but of notoriety.

And so, clad in yellow (the color of cowardice, though luckily also the color Dev Patel was a truly meant to wear) he sets off and learns that the world is more challenging and strange than he ever dared dream. In contrast to the status he's always enjoyed, Gawain is small and weak in the face of the world. His legend means nothing to either scavengers and giants. Nature pays him no mind.

For a long while, all he can ask is what others will do for him-- something he even asks of poor Winifred, when her plight should be sympathetic to him most of all. His willingness to let others serve him leads him to bad decisions-- for goodness sake, Gawain, don't you know not accept food and sexual favors from mysterious strangers? Like the Lord's perverted "exchange of winnings" displays, Gawain cannot give like others. He's a passive character. He wants others to make his decisions for him. He finds his own value in the opinions of others. He is not ready for the world.

When he runs from the Lord and Lady's mansion, it's the first true action he's taken aside from that fateful beheading. From there he finally comes face to face with the very consequence he's been trying to outrun. Of course, the fear is still there. "Is this all there is?" he asks the Green Knight. "What more should there be?" he replies.

And so Gawain finally thinks. What else will there be? His imagined future is a tour de force piece of filmmaking, and also a heartbreaking vision. Springing from the choice of his cowardice-- his choice to run from the Green Knight-- he considers "what more there should be." Who will he be? A man who may become great, but whose greatness relies on a lie. A man willing to use others for his own gain. A man who runs from death only to meet it again.

The question is not whether or not the Green Knight cuts his head (though, notably, in the chivalric romance, Gawain survives). That question has a been a red herring all along. No, the question is this: can Gawain accept the consequences of his actions?

Eventually, the answer is yes. He pulls away his emerald-colored belt. And he makes the choice to do the right thing, despite the fact that it leaves him with an uncertain future and perhaps no future at all. He finds himself compelled to be honorable. For the first time, he makes a decision based on what he thinks of himself, rather than how others see him. This is what finally makes him a hero. This is when he's finally ready.

I love a film that a challenges me-- one that I have to dig into and tear apart in order to make sense of it. That's why I've seen this one twice in as many days. The text is rich and the journey is hard.

But oh, it's a journey worth going on. And there's lots of help along the way. The cinematography is bleak and lush all at once, never falling back onto the easy choice of grays. The sound design and foley is the stuff of dreams-- every move the Green Knight makes has the force of a forest behind it. Dev Patel's face seems made for medieval imagery, but his eyes are big pools of emotion that pull you into the heart of a film that can feel detached (Dev Patel Oscar When?) And Alicia Vikander's incredible monologue on the color green, wryly dealt in throaty tones, is as haunting as the titular knight.

Anyway, I very rarely use letterboxd to write anything at all serious-- I much prefer making stupid jokes-- but I absolutely had to write a bit on this film just to scratch the itch it's given me. I haven't been this excited about a film in a long while. "Let's get to hacking."

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