The Green Knight, 2021, directed by David Lowery — 4.5/5 Stars
There aren’t many movies like The Green Knight. While it was a much-anticipated release in the world of filmmaking, most of the promotional material for David Lowery’s Arthurian epic was shrouded in mystery. Posters and trailers didn’t show much more than star Dev Patel’s stoic face, his eyes solemnly taunting audiences with the ambiguity of the film’s contents. The constructed mystique is ultimately a success, as the film’s plot is a wondrous, bizarre sequence of events that need to be seen to be believed. What begins as a somewhat straightforward medieval hero’s journey morphs into a delightfully disturbing sequence of dreamlike vignettes, solidifying The Green Knight as one of distributor A24’s best releases to date.
Likely the first thing to strike viewers about The Green Knight is the engulfing and surreal cinematography by director of photography Andrew Droz Palermo. The film opens with an ambient environment, drawing the audience’s attention to livestock offset from the center of the frame. In the background, a building burns, and ambient sounds of a fictionalized medieval city immerse viewers in the world. This opening shot is the first of many long takes by Palermo, who pushes his stylistic limits far more than in A Ghost Story, his previous project with Lowery. These long takes are complemented by slow, smooth pans, bright, primary-colored lighting and vertical rotations of the camera that disorient and unnerve the audience. One of the most powerful moments in the film is near the start of the story, when hero Gawain, played by Patel, departs from the city on his quest. The camera follows Gawain on his horse, facing him as the city gets smaller behind him and the barren, dirty world around it becomes all that can be seen. This shot feels as though it lasts forever, creating a sense of uneasiness and setting the stakes for the journey that Gawain and the audience will go on together.
The powerful cinematography is enriched by the unique costumes and production design, which, despite keeping a distinctly Arthurian tone, carves out a unique style. Merging what can only be described as Tolkien-esque architecture and clothing with historically accurate forms, as well as some unexampled flourishes, the film’s visual style feels fresh and fluid. Perhaps the best example of this is in the crowns worn by the royal characters, which at first appear to be nondescript and unremarkable, but when worn reveal a circular addition that rests behind the head, evoking religious imagery of marked holiness.
It would be remiss to go without mentioning the score, which also keeps a medieval mood, largely in its instrumentation, but feels distinct and new all the same. The most notable moments in the score, as well as the most frequent, are the ones that create a sense of monotonous uneasiness, characterized by droning piano chords and sharply plucked strings.
What keeps the story grounded is Patel, who fleshes out his character well as a young, naïve hero, seeking honor but lacking some of the bravery necessary to follow through on what is expected of him. His performance is complemented by his accompanying ensemble, including Alicia Vikander, who plays several roles throughout.
The Green Knight is something new. It’s confusing, gross and sometimes downright scary, but it’s undeniably engrossing and enchanting, and Lowery ultimately conjures up some fascinating questions about death, legend and love. The Green Knight is in theaters right now.