The Green Knight opens at dawn onto a view of a medieval courtyard. Director David Lowery holds the camera steady, peering through a ground level window. An irritated brown goat quarrels with a gaggle of geese. Nearby, a drunkard slumbers against a stone shed. And, in the right hand corner of the frame, a house with a roof on fire slowly comes into focus. That fire, a possible portent of things to come, is one of many resonant images in the film that’s never explained or referred to again.
Lowery (A Ghost Story) excels at creating rich, visual textures like his contemporaries Ari Aster (Midsommar) and Robert Eggers (The Witch). Elements from the natural world appear in nearly every frame — mist, mud, flames, and water. But that initial house on fire doesn’t signify. It informs the unsettling mood of the film, but doesn’t support the narrative. Where Aster and Eggers allow and encourage perverse relationships and unregulated emotions to unfurl, Lowery indulges in the art of collage. Individually, they’re lovely to behold. Strung together, his scenes don’t sustain enough weight to form an affecting or coherent plot.
The Green Knight combines a coming-of-age story with a quest for a figurative holy grail. It’s Excalibur (1981) retold for adolescents, without the unsettling and aggressive acts of sexuality. Dev Patel is cast, again, effectively, though perhaps for the last time at age 31, as a wide-eyed innocent. He plays Gawain, nephew to the king and a knight-in-training. When he wakes up on Christmas morning in a brothel, it’s his window we’re looking out from to see the barnyard animals and the house on fire.
When he returns home to the castle, his mother (Sarita Choudhury) gently chides him for staying out all night. She doesn’t approve of his fecklessness or of Gawain’s girlfriend Essel (Alicia Vikander, who’s more engaging here than she’s been in her recent films). She’s a Mary Magdalene archetype, sporting a boy’s haircut, a dull gray tunic, and hopelessly devoted to her man. Gawain greets his mother, ignoring the note of concern in her voice, and rushes past her to sleep off his hangover.
Choudhury hardly speaks a word in the movie after that brief exchange but Lowery sets the plot in motion by turning her into a sorceress. After his nap, Gawain joins the Christmas celebration with the king and his court. Gawain’s mother (who isn’t given a name) stays behind to begin a ritual with the help of some assistants wearing hats, which look something like a Hieronymus Bosch interpretation of Dune. In a series of cross cuts between her witchy, Morgan le Fay-like behavior and the king’s banquet hall, the Green Knight enters the hallway astride his horse. Her incantation has summoned him out of the deep winter forest.
Before he arrives, Lowery provides the audience with a Game of Thrones crossover appearance. The queen is played by Kate Dickie (Lysa Arryn, Lady Regent of the Vale), who performs a convincing monologue of spiritual possession. Her Lysa Arryn was a perverse character whose maternal skills were smothering and vaguely incestuous. Like the house on fire, Dickie’s scene contains some elements of a supernatural horror film. But Lowery can’t sustain a unifying mood from these compelling but disparate moments.
At first, the director invests in terrifying us. The Green Knight appears to be a malevolent male version of Mother Nature. His body is composed of wood like the Ents in The Lord of the Rings. He’s also a pagan Pan figure, a demigod of disorder who comes to wreak havoc amongst the mortals. The Green Knight submits a challenge to the assembled court. Only Gawain accepts it. But once he leaves the castle to seek out his uncertain fate, the sense of menace dissipates. He faces threats in a choreographed way like the labors of Hercules. There’s a confrontation with bandits in a forest, a spectral request from a ghost, and a second castle where Essel’s more sophisticated doppelgänger resides.
Each time Lowery shows a strange or striking image — a skull that turns into a talking head or a blind woman silently observing a seduction — it fades away without having any lasting impact. The greatest letdown though is the quest itself, which turns out to be meaningless. This may be a deliberate post-modern take on ancient fables and tales. In the past, readers turned to myths to be entertained and for moral or spiritual guidance. To think through questions like, How does a boy become a man? Lowery’s script dismisses that kind of self-reflection as irrelevant. He’s created a visually arresting entertainment that’s as insubstantial and as easily forgotten as a dream. Gawain leaves the comforts of home to have his many adventures, yet his character remains unchanged. We never find out if his mother is displeased with the outcome of her spell.
The Green Knight is now playing at AMC’s Kabuki 8 and Metreon 16, Balboa Theatre, Century San Francisco Centre 9, Regal Stonestown, Roxie Theater and the Vogue Theatre.