The Green Knight is a surreal and open-ended piece of art that, like a painting, needs to be over-analyzed to get an understanding. As such, this will be a hybrid review/deep dive article as I try to make sense of the movie and as such, full spoilers ahead and the reason why it took so long to get it to you.
When I walked out of The Green Knight, one of my most anticipated films of 2021, I believe the term that was in my mind, and the minds of everyone else in the theatre was more or less the same: what the f*ck just happened. That’s not per se a negative, it’s just…complicated. Award-winning director David Lowery has taken the 14th-century poem by Anonymous, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and given audiences a trippy, ambiguous, abstract and surreal quest that will offer more questions than answers.
The film stars Dev Patel as Gawain, son of Morgan Le Fay and nephew to Arthur. The script is very shy about any connective tissue to the Arthurian legends, offering a brief mention in the opening narration about Arthur, then abandoning the name dropping for the rest of the movie. We meet an old and frail King Arthur early on (Sean Harris) but he’s never once called by his name (he’s credited as “The King”), nor is his legendary sword or his trusty wizard, Merlin. The film just expects you to have at least a passing knowledge of Arthurian lore and doesn’t waste our time with needless exposition. Patel’s Gawain, not a Sir in this movie, opens the film as a drunk who spends half his waking time seemingly in a brothel, in the company of Essel, a commoner and possibly a whore (Alicia Vikander). Then, on one fateful Christmas Day, the titular Green Knight comes a-knocking.
It’s clear early on that Morgan Le Fay summoned the knight to Camelot but the question as to why hangs over the entire movie, even when the credits start to roll. The Green Knight is a towering creature made of tree bark and practical effects and played ever so hauntingly by Game of Thrones alum Ralph Ineson. The Knight offers a simple game to any of the Knights of the Round Table: land a blow upon him and seeks him out one year later to receive the same in return. Gawain, in desperate search of fame, honour and a story to call his own, takes up his uncle’s sword and accepts the challenge, only for the Green Knight to lay down his axe and extend his neck. It’s important to remember that the challenge stated that any blow and that the challenge was seen as a game, so Gawain could have easily poked him or scratched him, but Gawain lobs off the Knight’s head, only for him to pick it up and declare “once year hence”. The movie wastes little time and jumps forward to begin the quest that Gawain was considering not even undertaking.
And why should he? If he doesn’t go, he’ll live. Sure, he’ll be a coward, but he’ll get to live some sort of a life. But Gawain, eager to prove himself an honourable knight, opts to find the Knight. It’s all a game after all, right? But just in case, his mother gives him an enchanted girdle with a ruin charm embedded to keep him safe from any harm.
Trial and Error
Gawain’s quest takes him to unusual places and encounters with bizarre folk. The further he is from Camelot, the more surreal the visuals and the narrative become. This is where the cinematography really started to shine. There are plenty of long shots in this film, which make it feel almost like a stage play at times. Filmed with natural lighting by Andrew Droz Palermo, the outdoor vistas were gorgeous, as were the unorthodox camera angles and symmetries. The use of artificial lighting was also notable, with Gawain being cast in heavy reds or greens at specific points in the story. Colour has an interesting role in the movie, whether it be story-specific reasons such as the Green Knight heralding the inevitably or nature of the dominant red for lust. Gawain can later be seen near the Green Chapel against an orange sky, matching the cloak he’s seen for the duration of his quest.
His first encounter is with a young lad in the middle of a battlefield. Corpses litter the ground and the man, played by Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan, is seemingly a scavenger. Gawain asks him about the Green Chapel, his destination, and the scavenger gives him directions. Gawain, eager to get on with it, says his thanks and leaves, but the scavenger asks if his information isn’t worth anything. And thus, Gawain fails the first task. A chivalrous knight would have paid the man without asking. As a consequence of being miserly and inconsiderable, the scavenger reveals himself as a bandit and robs him of his horse, supplies and the Green Knight’s axe. In terms of what the film is offering and trying to say, this is the clearest in terms of the symbolism, although a rotating shot where Gawain sees his skeleton mirrors a shot later on in the film, during the vision of the future, where the camera once again circles back to Gawain at a moment beyond his control leading to his demise. In both cases, it was a vision, showcasing that Gawain is still in control of his destiny.
His next quest/challenge is when he comes to an old house seeking shelter. It’s here that he finds a spirit named Winifred (Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Erin Kellyman) who asks him to retrieve his skull. Gawain asks what would he get in return, something a true knight would never ask, resulting in a second failure. The spirit later reveals the Green Knight is someone he knows (and in the original poem, the Knight ends up being Joel Edgerton’s Lord in disguise). The spirit chapter is much more surreal than any previous scene, as we’re left wondering how the red (lust) lighting in the pool connects to the quest at hand, retrieve the skull. The spirit died after a man tried to force himself upon her, so perhaps the skull and red lighting signal the horror of such a desire. Gawain often frequents the local brothel and his vision of the future, discards Essel once she’s given birth to Gawain’s heir, showcasing once more the lack of chivalry in his life. More peculiarly, the Green Knight’s stolen axe magically returns to Gawain here. How is something of a mystery, but perhaps a connection to Gawan’s possible destiny.
Later, Gawain partners with a fox who follows him on his quest and the pair stumble upon giants roaming the land. It’s the only time the movie looks a bit wonky, as the giants were likely actors filmed against a green screen and superimposed into the scene. But Gawain asks them for a lift to speed up his journey, one he ought to make on his own to claim his “honour” and thus, another test failed.
Now we come to the most open-ended and bizarre part of the movie; when Gawain meets Lord and Lady. Played by Edgerton and Vikander (a dual role for her in this movie), the two seem to jockey for the famous Gawain’s favour, whose tale of beheading the Knight has since become famous in the songs. Lady asks to paint Gawain’s portrait, with the end result being almost photographic, albeit with a green tint. This is, perhaps, crucial depending on how you view the ending (more on that in a sec). Lady, interestingly, looks like a higher class version of his lower-class lady love back home and an explicit encounter with her results in his girdle getting stained.
It’s here where the movie also feels the longest. The runtime is just over two hours long but feels like it’s around 10-15 minutes too long. There are shots, such as Gawain’s departure from Camelot that feel needlessly extended (this one is a solid minute of Gawain on horseback, trotting away in an uncut shot).
What’s Up With That Ending?
So. The ending. The film cuts to black after a lengthy vision showcasing “what if” Gawain fled the Knight’s game and lived on. His tyrannical rule would eventually come to an end at the hands of the citizens of Camelot after years of losing everything. But it was all a vision. Gawain finally discards the protective girdle around his waist and accepts the consequences of his actions. The Green Knight congratulates him, presses a thumb over Gawain’s neck and declares, “now off with your head” before the movie ends. Now, in the original poem, the Knight brings the axe down and merely scratches Gawain’s neck, but the movie leaves it open for interpretation. One of two things happen, I think. One is that the thumb gliding on Gawain’s throat symbolized the cut and he got to keep his head after accepting his death at long last. He may have died, but he died with honour, the one thing he was seeking on this quest. The other possible ending, which I find more interesting for the film, is that thanks to the copious amounts of symbolism in the film, such as Gawain’s portrait being cast in green, his mushroom hallucination showing him turning into bark and him carrying the axe during the quest in search of honour to become a chivalrous knight means that he did lose his head but in doing so, became the Green Knight himself. While this is completely contradictory to the original text, I think, for this particular movie (which isn’t a traditional adaptation), it works better with the ambiguous ending. I also think it works in the sense that I don’t think Gawain’s mother wanted to her son to die in the name of chivalry, so as the Green Knight, he lives on with his honour intact.
In the end, I left The Green Knight confused, thinking, mortified, mystified. I’m not sure if I even liked it or not but it’s on my mind as I try to make sense of what I watched. This movie is definitely not for everyone and even those who enjoy surreal fantasy may find it a bit inaccessible. If you’re looking for a medieval fantasy adventure, this may not scratch that itch. But if you want to sit down and be challenged, be weirded out and maybe left wanting, this Arthurian adaptation offers all that. You have to see it for yourself and come up with your own conclusion to events.