by Mason Leaver
It’s not every day that a film comes along like The Green Knight (2021). The entire premise is weird. The story is based on a folk tale over 600 years old, focusing on the journey of a young knight who enters a bargain with a mysterious green skinned knight. The plot itself is odd, and it doesn’t seem like the sort of tale that would appeal to a modern audience. However, The Green Knight somehow manages to make this story captivating. It’s strangest elements are actually some of its strongest, and writer/director/editor David Lowery dives head first into this Arthurian legend. The Green Knight is a miracle of a film- one which manages to create a sensational cinematic experience from the blueprint of something which, on paper, seems doomed to fail.
One of the things which I most admire about Lowery’s process for The Green Knight is his willingness to take risks. There are tree-people, wandering naked giants, talking foxes, sorcerers, and so on. Yet all of these elements feel grounded in the world of the film- a strange, dark adaptation of the classic setting of King Arthur’s kingdom. The plot does not hold the audience’s hand. Instead, it forces the audience to interpret much of what is happening. Magic is mysterious and unexplained, and the viewer is left to guess at what exactly is happening at times. All of this leads to a final product which is very open to discussion, debate, and interpretation. It is a risky move for Lowery to leave so much to the audience, but it makes for a rewarding experience for the engaged viewer.
One of the stranger elements of The Green Knight
Another incredible aspect of The Green Knight is its use of color. Every frame of the film is masterfully composed. The village and castle of Camelot are rendered in harsh grey and brown tones, with high contrast lighting creating very interesting set pieces. As Gawain goes out on his adventure, the landscape is full of vibrant color. Each major plot point along Gawain’s journey is defined by a color scheme- red, yellow, white, green. This is certainly the largest project that Director of Photography Andrew Droz Palermo has worked on (Palermo previously worked with Lowery on Ghost Story (2017), and he shines through in this film. I could see an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography for The Green Knight this year. I hope to see him work with Lowery again in the future. Audiences should be looking forward to Palermo’s next project, which is sure to be fantastic. Indeed, if his work in this film is any indicator, Palermo could go on to be a legend in the business.
The use of color in The Green Knight
The Green Knight continues to shine through in its thematic explorations. The film manages to strike a balance between inspiring a sense of wonder and a sense of existential dread. The film is thematically centered around the human awareness of our own finitude, what Martin Heidegger called being-toward-death. Gawain is forced to confront two possible scenarios: to live and contribute to the horrors of humanity or to die an honorable death. The film asks us to question whether we could stand in Gawain’s place, journeying bravely towards our deaths. The film also shows that leading a life of kindness, bravery and courage is hard, and it is rarely rewarding. Nevertheless, The Green Knight inspires us to live out such a life for the sake of the adventure itself.
The titular Green Knight
Despite all of these strengths, The Green Knight has still proven to be divisive among critics and audiences alike. Some seem to love the film, and others believe it’s pointless. I fall in the camp that says that The Green Knight is an excellent film. Many have commented on the film’s pacing as a serious problem. Green Knight often features lengthy sections of landscape shots, with Gawain travelling across a mythical England on his journey. While the film can be slow at times, the lengthy shots of Gawain’s journey are meant to set a tone and a mood for the viewer. I would liken these sequences to the many colorful space sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968). Indeed, I believe that many of the strengths of 2001 are on display in Green Knight. It’s pacing is largely similar- an episodic adventure with lengthy visual sections interspersed between. During these sections, the score similarly plays a vital role in setting the tone of the film. Both films explore deep questions and themes related to the human experience and human mortality. And both films offer an ambiguous ending which lends itself to discussion and interpretation by the audience. I realize that this is a bold claim, but my hope is that in time The Green Knight will come to be recognized as a film of a similar level of mastery. I would certainly recommend giving it a watch, and perhaps a rewatch.