King Arthur’s Round Table is an impressively austere sight in The Green Knight: a circle of white stone bathed in dim light where mythic figures sit like statues, ready to be venerated. Tucked in the background of this scene is Gawain (played by Dev Patel), a young warrior eager to prove his mettle by going on the same journey as his idols. But David Lowery’s adaptation of the epic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight puts him on a stranger path, a voyage of self-discovery that evokes the original work’s heady mix of chivalry, temptation, and valor while digging into its contradictions.
It’s the movie Lowery was born to make, a dreamy piece of high fantasy that bombards the viewer with visual delights, skimps on all but the most essential dialogue, and turns an age-old tale into something to be puzzled over anew. Throughout his career, Lowery has moved between more straightforward commercial works (Disney’s Pete’s Dragon remake, The Old Man & the Gun) and artsier fare (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, the terrific A Ghost Story). The Green Knight feels like the perfect blend of his interests, a Dungeons & Dragons tale told with intimacy and loaded with aesthetic oddments; it’s easily the best and most complete-feeling film I’ve seen all year.
The central story, which has endured since the late 14th century, is a rather inscrutable one that hints only vaguely at grand adventure. Gawain faces a confounding test: He is challenged to land a blow on the mysterious Green Knight, but the knight is then allowed to return that blow one year and a day later. When Gawain heartily beheads the knight (rendered by Lowery as a grumbling tree-man wielding a colossal ax), the knight merely picks up his noggin and walks away cackling, a grim portent of what Gawain will have to eventually face.
The poem uses this premise as a way to examine the chivalric binds that all Arthurian knights are placed in, as the anonymous author grapples with how to maintain one’s honor while retaining possession of one’s head. The more-than-600-year-old work has been discussed by literary theorists as a text with feminist implications and as a meditation on sex and power in the Middle Ages. One of the poem’s most famous translators, J. R. R. Tolkien, agonized over its meaning for decades. The film embraces those ambiguities, having Gawain wrestle less with physical adversity and more with illicit desire and his own cowardice in the face of death. To become a hero, Gawain has to meet the Green Knight’s challenge, which means he has to die; Lowery wants to question the nobility of such a sacrifice.
The director wisely translates those abstractions into dazzling visions, many only loosely inspired by the poem itself. The film begins with a scene of Gawain sitting on a throne, his crowned head bursting into flames, suggesting that he’s either burdened with purpose or cursed to some unknown fate. Patel, one of the most effortlessly charismatic actors working today, manages to wrap his inherent magnetism in moodiness and self-doubt. Though Gawain looks the part of a hero on a quest to find the Green Knight again, Patel’s eyes belie deep insecurity, lending tension to every wayward encounter he has on the road.
The film was shot in Ireland’s lush, gorgeous countryside, and it’s stunning how empty the landscape feels—how untamed the world becomes immediately outside Camelot, a perfect blend of danger and wonder. Gawain comes across a devious thief (Barry Keoghan), a lonely ghost (Erin Kellyman), and a troupe of wailing giants. A great extended sequence late in the film sees him tarry at the estate of a magnanimous lord (Joel Edgerton) and mysterious lady (Alicia Vikander), who resembles a lover from back home. With each of these events, Lowery shows Gawain’s ideal of righteous service clashing with various mind-boggling challenges, reminders that the voyage of a hero cannot take a straight line.
The Green Knight is most brilliant in its wordless sequences. Lowery is exceptionally skilled at conjuring otherworldly sights that somehow retain one foot in reality. The makeup work on his shambling, bark-skinned Green Knight is magnificent, and he imagines the titans roaming the hills as naked, bronze humanoids singing beautiful alien songs. Near the film’s end, a silent visual poem unfolds as Gawain confronts the end of his quest and ponders what the future might bring. This is where Lowery departs from the original work the most, but he shows how much he understands its core messages: that becoming a knight requires far more than defeating one’s enemies, and that chivalry and morality are not identical virtues.