Every so often, a film comes along that blows your mind. Such is the case with writer/director David Lowery's The Green Knight, a gleefully twisted horror flick and one of the most visceral to come along in quite some time--a masterpiece of form and world-building.
Starring the mighty Dev Patel, The Green Knight doesn't have a lot in common with other epic, sweeping Arthurian dramas. Lowery tells a familiar story but uses camera movement, editing and special effects to create an atmosphere of such startling specificity that you could swear you've never seen or heard of Arthur before. You're in such a daze that by the time Lowery follows a familiar path, you've entirely forgotten where it leads.
The movie is most satisfying when it forges a new path. Patel plays Sir Gawain, the brash young Nephew of King Arthur who wants to be a knight at The Roundtable, but spends far too much time in bed with Alicia Vikander (can you blame him?). After a sweaty sex scene, he's called to the side of Arthur (Sean Harris) and Queen Guineverie (Kate Dickie), where a mysterious treelike figure rides in on a horse and challenges a brave knight to a "Christmas game": They can land the blow on him and take his ax, but in return, they have to ride to the Green Knight's chapel a year later and receive the same strike in return. Eye for an eye, head for a head.
Why would anyone accept? For honor? For fame? For sex? For Gawain, it's fame, a chance to be known around the land, if only for a year. He chops off the Green Knight's head, which is put right back on his noggin. The knight leaves with his brain intact, laughing like a Bond villain as he rides back to his--er-- branch of the woods. The following year flies by in no time (three minutes in movie time), a clever montage reminding audiences how futile 15-minutes of fame really is. Gawain sets his sights north, and it seems the only way he can return is to defeat the knight himself.
Following his A-to-B journey, The Green Knight shifts from the literal to the magical to the elliptical. Lowery manages to balance these tones, at once grounding things in Gawain's emotional progress, as well as heightening his literal progress through fairy-tale landscape. Collaborating with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo, Lowery creates a world like no other, using gorgeous, sensual, spellbinding rays of light to turn an empty forest into an ethereal playground, while pillows of fog roll into cloud judgment. Nature is often used to reflect our hero's psyche, a concept used with color as well.
The Green Knight is a bold artistic statement, inspired by the history of Arthurian legend, though it's not exactly an Arthurian tale. If there's a bone to pick, it's that Lowery goes a bit overboard on "being different." It's almost as if he's trying not to make a King Arthur movie. As an experience of mood, tone, style and atmosphere, however, it's right up there with A24's Hereditary and The Lighthouse, a nightmare forged in blood, guts, myth, mist and mystery. It's horror with brains...often spilled on the ground.
Movie Score: 5/5