The arthouse fantasy “The Green Knight” begins with a word from an off-camera narrator who disappears right after he repositions the Christian allegory of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” as a secular fairy tale.
In this pompous introduction, which sounds like a stuffier version of Mako’s preface to “Conan the Barbarian,” Gawain (Dev Patel) is compared with his uncle King Arthur (Sean Harris), though we are told that Arthur’s legend is a story for another time. Gawain is also a different kind of seeker, and the limits of his vision will come to define not only the meaning of his story but how it is told.
In “The Green Knight,” Gawain’s pilgrimage is illustrated by a series of fussily composed vignettes that hint at mysteries that Gawain and his movie’s creators are only superficially interested in. And while parts of this movie are certainly attractive, especially Andrew Droz Palermo’s mannered cinematography and Malgosia Turzanska’s elegant costume designs, none of them is so compelling as to transcend writer-director David Lowery’s confining presentation of his archetypal characters.
According to Lowery (“A Ghost Story,” “Pete’s Dragon”), Gawain is a genial but self-absorbed pilgrim defined by his inability to see or appreciate his surroundings. Gawain says that he’s driven by his sense of “honor,” but he really wants to be passionate about something bigger than himself, as an early conversation with his uncle suggests. So while at a Christmas party, Gawain foolishly beheads the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), a humanoid tree monster. In Gawain’s defense: the Green Knight invites Christmas party guests to strike him wherever they like, on the condition that, in a year’s time, he’ll repay the favor at the mysterious Green Chapel. So Gawain really goes for it, and then spends the rest of the movie fearfully schlepping out to the Green Chapel.
But before then, Gawain encounters a variety of sketchy supporting characters who, in his limited view, serve to develop his story. They actually (and monotonously) remind Gawain that when you are unexpectedly offered a gift, you should always repay the favor. Gawain doesn’t understand this concept, but he gets there eventually. The audience for “The Green Knight” may not be so lucky, though not for lack of trying.
Most of Gawain’s encounters are cut short by pseudo-iconic images and bombastic dialogue that are never as suggestive as they are vague. This is a movie that announces its serious intent and heavy-osity throughout, especially Daniel Hart’s throbbing score and Jade Healy’s stylized production design. But there’s only so much depth to the supposedly earthy side characters that help Gawain get to where he ultimately must go. Most of them talk like Tarantino characters who just discovered Chaucer, and they all look like Wes Anderson protagonists as re-imagined by a gifted art student mimic.
So whenever something eventful is about to happen, the camera’s placement always lets you know where to look, like when a curious fox disappears from one end of a cave’s mouth and re-emerges on the other side. And when supporting characters, like Alicia Vikander’s Lady Essel or Barry Keoghan’s Scavenger, are about to redirect Gawain’s quest, they always say as much in folksy, elliptical dialogue that inadvertently reminds us that we know about as much about Gawain as they do.
Sex and violence are, in this context, nothing more than cheap effects to be used whenever Lowery wants to get a rise out of viewers. A handful of semen and an unexpected kiss on the lips are, in that sense, just as ridiculous as Gawain’s ostensibly awe-inspiring discovery of a herd of naked giants. Gawain can’t communicate with them, but his afore-mentioned fox friend can, so viewers are treated to a campy exchange of animal noises. Scenes like this stand out because they demand that you suspend your disbelief in spite of the movie’s flashy but un-serious details. Even the camera’s just-so placement, filtration and movement — particularly during interstitial landscape panoramas –denies viewers the pleasure of getting lost in frames that Gawain either flies through or glides past.
But while it’s often frustrating to watch Gawain wade through a gauntlet of character-building encounters, “The Green Knight” is never more irritating than when it dwells on Gawain’s uncertainty. Patel delivers a fine enough performance, but scenes where Gawain is challenged (especially by women) only speak to Lowery’s unfortunate knack for getting between viewers and his characters.
Patel is a blurry smudge on the left-hand side of the screen when Gawain’s girlfriend (also Vikander) asks him, in an early scene, to reassure her and make promises that he’s too fearful to deliver. Patel is also used as a prop during a key scene where Vikander’s Lady puts Gawain in a compromising position. There are only a few questions that “The Green Knight” doesn’t have ungenerous answers to, and it shows whenever Lowery and his team can’t bridge the gap between the movie’s images and their emotional content. So while there’s a lot of commendable chutzpah and curious longing baked into “The Green Knight,” the movie’s never as compelling as it is unusual.
“The Green Knight” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.