It’s Not Easy Being Gawain – The Green Knight

A couple years ago I got to briefly meet director David Lowery at a Q&A following his film, The Old Man & the Gun. As much as I enjoyed the film, I was captivated by Lowery’s reverence for Robert Redford as an actor, and for the Western film genre that he was both deconstructing and granting homage. He’s a perfectionist who understands the balance between making sure you have cool visuals and the need for believable characters and story. I made a mental note at the time to see whatever he put out next, because he had the makings of an auteur, someone who really “got” it when it comes to making movies.

That new outing is The Green Knight, which is about as far as a thematic departure from Old Man as you can get, eschewing a grounded character study couched in the Western style for an epic Arthurian fantasy. But the quality and attention to detail is no less present, nor is the commitment to ensuring the whole enterprise is driven by a lead character that feels real and a story that makes sense. The scale may be much grander this time around, but the little things that matter most are still front and center.

Adapted from one of the classic tales of Camelot, this somewhat grimy retelling features Dev Patel as Gawain, son of Morgan le Fay and nephew to King Arthur. Eager for the glory and honor that comes with being a Knight of the Round Table, Patel’s portrayal is an eternal struggle between his ambitions and his sense of right and wrong. He wishes to be held in high regard as a hero, but would rather spend his time in a Falstaff-like state of indulging in alcohol and prostitutes. This is somewhat ironic in a meta sense, as Joel Edgerton, who played Falstaff in The King a few years back, also appears in this film playing a more toned-down version of the same character. In essence, this version of Gawain is an analog for people we’ve all dealt with at one point or another, that being the person who wants the prestige and privilege of an accomplishment or title, but without doing the actual work necessary to make it happen. It’s someone who’d rather be given a title than make their own name. This can manifest in many forms, from unproductive team members on a group project, to, say, a politician who demands people praise him for solving a global pandemic while actively hampering the progress of those actually trying to keep people from dying. Could be anyone, I’m just spitballing here.

On Christmas day, after a morning tryst with his lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander), Gawain attends a feast at Camelot, with Arthur (Sean Harris) inviting him to sit beside him. Meanwhile, his witchy mother (Sarita Choudhury) casts a spell in secret to summon a supernatural being as a test for Arthur’s literal inner circle. The Green Knight appears (played by Ralph Ineson), and proposes a “game.” If one of Arthur’s knights can land a single blow against him in combat, that knight will win the Green Knight’s magical axe. The condition is that no matter what blow is landed, in one year’s time, that knight must in good faith meet him at the Green Chapel and accept the same hit in kind.

Sensing his time has come at last, Gawain jumps forward, with Arthur lending him Excalibur for the task. However, rather than have a full fight in the hall, the Green Knight simply kneels and offers his exposed neck. Taking the bait, Gawain beheads him. This isn’t a spoiler, as it’s in the trailer, so don’t come at me with complaints. The Green Knight then rises, collects his head, and reminds Gawain of the debt now owed, leaving casually with head under arm.

Let’s break down this inciting event for a second, because it’s constructed so beautifully. First off, the design on the Green Knight is amazing. I’m sure some bullshit like Cruella is going to campaign hard for a Makeup & Hairstyling Oscar, but it pales in comparison to something like this. The ostensible antagonist of this film has an immaculate visage, as if carved out of wood, with branches and vines coiling around to substitute for hair like a woodland Medusa. I’m almost certain this is a practical effect rather than CGI in most places as well, adding to the degree of difficulty.

Second, the production design is off the charts as well. Lowery makes fantastic use of the space in the scene, and perhaps unintentionally corrects one of the weirdest tropes in film. Be they set in medieval or modern times, a ton of movies have large areas just filled to the brim with candles (or lamps), to the point that if the scene were real, they’d be at minimum impractical and more likely outright dangerous. Here, the approach is more minimalist. Yes, there are torches and candles, but in an array and amount that not only makes sense, but helps to make the lighting seem realistic, complemented by a spotlight from the Sun’s beams through a singular stone window for extra dramatic effect. It’s not overpowering, and yet there’s enough lighting to see what’s going on, a problem that’s been prevalent in a LOT of effects-driven films over the last few years.

Third, and most importantly, the implications of this scene speak volumes with very little dialogue. Once Gawain accepts the challenge, the Green Knight is basically silent, allowing Gawain to figuratively dig his own preemptive grave by taking the most aggressive route to win the “game.” Even Arthur gives Gawain full warning to not take things too seriously, as it’s Christmas, and this is likely meant to be a fun test of cunning. Yes, in medieval times through at least the Renaissance, the word “game” did have something of a double meaning when it came to combat. That’s why you’ll see in the works of Shakespeare that the rare stage direction for a sword fight often includes the phrase, “They play,” but this is not one of those times.

Arthur is keen to remind Gawain of this, but as this film will illustrate time and again, Gawain is often his own worst enemy, his pride and ambitious desire often substituting for common sense. Again, he wants the glory, but he lacks the proverbial guts. From a pure story perspective, Gawain could have just punched the Green Knight in the face, or jabbed him with the hilt of the sword if weapons were required. But instead, even when the truth is quietly screaming in his face that it’s a trap (the Green Knight even begins by laying down his own weapon, daring Gawain to harm an unarmed opponent), he thinks a purely performative show of strength will equate to actual strength, even though it’s ultimately the most dishonorable option he could have picked. He chose to win the quick and easy way rather than the thoughtful, reasoned way, never considering the consequences if his guess is wrong, and the entirety of the film’s events from here on out are a direct result of this display of hubris. It’s just tremendous.

After a very quick year spent basking in the fleeting glow of fame without ever doing anything with it (and visibly growing weary of keeping up appearances), it’s time for Gawain to take up his quest and meet the Green Knight again. His mother, distraught earlier when she learns it was Gawain and that he took the most extreme route in the challenge, gives him a girdle said to protect him from all harm whenever he wears it. With weapons in hand (he curiously packs the axe away, seemingly thinking that if he returns it without use, it’ll settle their bargain) and clad in the finest armor, he mounts his steed and sets out on his grand adventure.

But of course, things are never as easy as they seem. He encounters a scavenger on a corpse-riddled battlefield (Barry Keoghan) and asks for directions, offering a single coin as thanks, but only after goaded by the youth to pay for services rendered. This leads to him getting ambushed in the woods later by this same man and his companions for lying and essentially being cheap, and they rob him and leave him for dead. He meets the ghost of a girl beheaded for refusing a sexual advance (Erin Kellyman, aka Enfys Nest from Solo), and before he accepts her request to find her missing skull, he himself infers sexual desire that is nowhere in the girl’s actions. Near his destination, he meets a nameless Lord and hunter (Edgerton) and his Lady (also Alicia Vikander), who test his integrity in different ways, the former by having him make a promise he can’t keep, and the latter by trying to seduce him. He is accompanied at times by a photorealistic CGI fox that eventually talks and tries to get him to turn back to save his own life, which could either be interpreted as a pragmatic stance or a temptation towards his baser instincts. Either way, Gawain dismisses his only companion for having the audacity to question his choices.

Every stop along Gawain’s path, from the mundane to the fantastical, offers him a chance to prove his worth by displaying the honor he seeks in actions rather than words, and he fails. He wants the accolades but does not believe in living up to the titles he covets. It’s almost frustrating to see him make the wrong choice time and again, but there is just enough courage in his heart to escape the most dire scenarios, so we’re able to at least root for him to finally get the message. And while he is dishonorable, it is often presented in human terms. There are only a few moments where he’s outright villainous or cowardly, while the bulk of his misdeeds are relatable actions any of us might make in a similar situation. It’s the way they pile up that makes him an anti-hero at best. Any one of these scenarios, if isolated, could play out the way they do and be chalked up as human nature, but when he constantly goes down the darker path, it becomes a character-defining pattern. It’s to Dev Patel’s immense credit as an actor that he keeps doing these things but has enough internal debate and doubt to still make him sympathetic and at times even charming.

The one area story-wise that falls short is in the form of ambiguity and dangling plot threads. In a bit of ironic subversion, the original story leaves a lot of the details of Gawain’s journey open to interpretation, while everything from the encounter with the Lord and Lady onward is explicit and detailed. Here, Lowery’s script does the opposite, making the waypoints on the quest highly specific while leaving the final act much more up in the air than the source material. Sometimes this works, but other times it does get a bit irritating. For example, before Gawain fights the Green Knight at the beginning, Arthur directly warns him that it’s “just a game.” That line carries so much weight that it’s begging to have a callback later in the film, but it never is. We’re left wondering if this really is all a silly bit of jest on the Green Knight’s part or if there is the real expectation that Gawain will give up his head.

Similarly, the magical elements introduced here and there have no practical payoff. One could think the encounter with the scavengers is more allegorical than literal, as the items they stole wind up back in Gawain’s possession through supernatural means. So maybe it was a test, and none of it was actually real. But then we see Keoghan again towards the end, meaning he very much was there and what happened actually happened, which raises tons of questions about how Gawain got his stuff back, and why the scavengers never reappeared in the main story to try to steal them again. They’re set up as running villains, but once they disappear, that’s it apart from Keoghan’s confirmation cameo late. The fact that Essel and the Lady look the same (because it’s the same actress) is never addressed, nor why the Lord tells Gawain that if he returns to their house, they won’t be there when he’s done with the Green Knight. Gawain himself flees their castle when an old blind woman apparently witnesses his wrongdoing, but her presence and threat are never explained at all. Just her being there is supposed to be intimidating, I guess, but it’s more just confusing.

There’s just so much stuff that Lowery introduces in this film, particularly in the back half, that never gets a satisfying resolution. Some of it is truly mind-blowing, richly-drawn stuff, but it’s all left unresolved in favor of an ambiguous moral. This can work, but in such a large-scale epic tale, where things have been building and building for so long, it’s deflating to have it left with, “Well, what do YOU think happened?” The film is divided into titled chapters, but we in the audience shouldn’t spend that title screen asking what the last chapter meant, and that happens just a few too many times.

All that being said, this movie’s visuals are simply jaw-dropping, almost enough to ignore or forgive any structural flaws in the plot. I’ve already talked about the makeup and the production design, but the visual effects are just wondrous because Lowery is such a stickler for detail. The film was originally supposed to be released last year, but was pulled from the schedule due to the pandemic, and Lowery, unsatisfied with the first final cut, spent the intervening time back in the edit bay meticulously recrafting the film to make it as gorgeous as possible, and it paid off.

The CGI effects are astounding because they look real. As I said, the fox that travels with Gawain looks just as genuine as any of the animals in the Lion King remake, but this one at least has personality. At one point, Gawain encounters giants that are eerily beautiful, mostly because it appears they used real actresses (including Vikander I want to say) and gave them a sort of hard makeup/motion capture skin while apparently using some combination of green screens and forced perspective to make it look like they were interacting in the same space with Patel.

And then there are the more practical effects. There’s a wonderful shot when the scavengers leave Gawain in the woods tied up. In a panoramic shot, the camera moves from a struggling Patel all the way around in a full circle before coming back to rest on a Gawain skeleton, before reversing course and going back all the way round again, landing on the still-living Patel. This is either an immaculately-edited sequence of shots or an even more perfectly executed one-take shot with Patel and the stagehands strategically moving outside the frame to position the skeleton in the span of 12 seconds and then deftly replace it with the actor in the same space of time. Whichever method was used, it’s an expert practical effect with no need for CGI whatsoever.

This is how effects should be done. I’ve ranted about this before, but for me, in order for a visual effect to work, there has to be an existing visual on which to apply the effect. I love animation just fine, more than most I’d wager, but doing animation against a live action backdrop or in place of live action effects is just cheap and lazy, because we in the audience know it’s fake. And I don’t mean in the sense that everything has to be part of our reality. There’s a reason the effects in Jurassic Park still hold up almost 30 years later. Steven Spielberg and Stan Winston’s team used a combination of animatronics and limited CGI to create lifelike dinosaurs that viewers felt like they could reach out and touch. When that gets replaced by a computerized sheen (like, say, every Jurassic film since The Lost World), it looks completely artificial because we know what we’re seeing isn’t really there. Nothing was recorded on camera. It was all done in post. This is what most blockbuster filmmakers fail to understand. It’s no longer an illusion when we’re aware of it and can see the proverbial strings.

Are these effects perfect? No, there is definitely an issue or two. The giants, while awesome, do still have that bit of CGI shininess that prevents the effect from being 100% believable, and every once in a while, the color palette bathes the shot in darkness that obscures the visuals, similar to how the recent Kaiju movies kept Godzilla and his foes in the dark as much as possible, because when they put him or King Kong into full light, they looked fake as shit. But the vast majority of the time, not only do these effects look real, but the color palette makes such creative use of bright greens, reds, and yellows that it only enhances the otherworldliness of the experience.

This is what an effects-driven movie should be. Make the effort to actually wow us with unique and realistic-looking visuals, rather than yet another illogical CGI Jackson Pollock painting. Keep the epic scale but ground the film in a plausible story (within context) and a character complex enough so that the audience is engaged throughout. Make sure you have actors who can handle the demands of the role and of the content. Patel, Edgerton, and Vikander are well up to the task.

It’s not that hard, people, you just have to commit to doing it right. David Lowery, having already demonstrated this credibility before, has done just that yet again. He is a perfectionist, and while he didn’t make a perfect film, there’s not a single person who should leave a screening of this movie thinking he half-assed it for even a moment. Even if this movie outright sucked, that would still be worthy of admiration. Thankfully, it very much did not suck.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you familiar with Arthurian legend? What sort of fantasy movies do you like to see? Let me know!

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