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The Green Knight is a surreal and fascinating exploration of honor and legend

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Writer-director David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pete's Dragon, A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun) directs this film based on the Arthurian 14th century Middle English chivalric romantic poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, about a tree-like knight who arrives at King Arthur's court on Christmas eve with a challenge for one of Arthur's knights to strike a blow against him in exchange for allowing him to return the blow in a year and a day. King Arthur's (Sean Harris) nephew, the immature and unproven Gawain (Dev Patel), brashly agrees to the challenge and swiftly removes the Green Knight's (Ralph Ineson) head, but instead of perishing, the Green Knight picks up his head and rides off after arranging next year's meeting with Gawain at the Green Chapel. (130 min.)

IN SEARCH OF HONOR Gawain (Dev Patel) accepts a challenge to prove his worthiness but struggles to muster the inner fortitude to behave honorably, in The Green Knight, playing in local theaters. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SAILOR BEAR, BRON STUDIOS, AND A24
  • Photo Courtesy Of Sailor Bear, Bron Studios, And A24
  • IN SEARCH OF HONOR Gawain (Dev Patel) accepts a challenge to prove his worthiness but struggles to muster the inner fortitude to behave honorably, in The Green Knight, playing in local theaters.

Glen This odd, challenging film will have those willing to commit to it thinking about it for days after the theater goes dark. It mixes two folk story motifs—the beheading game and the exchange of winnings—the latter occurring after Gawain begins his quest to find the Green Chapel and complete the challenge. His journey is arduous, and along the way Gawain proves to be less than brave and noble. He eventually comes upon a castle, whose lord (Joel Edgerton) invites him in to rest before completing his journey, telling him he'll give him whatever he kills while hunting in exchange for whatever Gawain might receive while he rests in the castle. As the lord is out hunting, his beautiful wife (Alicia Vikander) attempts to seduce Gawain. At its heart this is a story about knightly honor. Gawain wants desperately to not only be a knight but to be honorable, however he demonstrates a lack of character at every turn. Lowery's version of the epic poem pays homage to the source material but also deconstructs it, suggesting that the stories we tell ourselves about human bravery and honor are lies. It's a stunningly gorgeous film with cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo, but it's also a surreal and difficult film to process. I have a feeling it won't appeal to some viewers.

Anna I wasn't familiar with the poem but got a brief synopsis before heading to the theater. I walked out of the theater liking the film, and now that I've had a few days to digest it, I like it even more. It's doing well with critics but less so with general audiences, which is a shame—there's a lot of meat on these bones, and the story is told in an engaging way. Lowery weaves an evocative tale that—combined with Palermo's beautiful cinematography—creates a moody and grueling story. Gawain perhaps wants to be good but struggles with vices and his conviction. When the year finally passes and King Arthur says he must start his quest, he visibly squirms at the idea of riding into what seems will be his certain death. "Was it not a game?" he asks the King, who breaks the news that game or no, his honor requires he fulfill his quest. I'm a fan of this director—he's great at creating mood as well as small but potent moments with his characters. Like you said, this may not hit with wider audiences, but if you enjoy a challenging film, this is a great watch.

Glen Lowery's version of the story has a lot of layers to decode. Early on, we see Gawain sleeping with Essel (Vikander in a duel role), who wants Gawain to make an honest woman of her, but it's clear Gawain thinks she's not good enough for him. Yet Gawain falls deeply in lust with the lady of the castle (also Vikander). His perception is distorted by his expectations of himself. When the lord of the castle asks him why he's on the quest, Gawain says "honor," as if merely completing the quest will somehow bestow upon him noble characteristics he currently doesn't possess. After he's waylaid on his quest by a ne'er-do-well played by Irish actor Barry Keoghan, who's terrific as always, Gawain is lost and hungry and picks and eats wild mushrooms, and then things turn psilocybin-style trippy. Lowery goes in so many wild and inventive directions, expanding on the poem in surprising ways and showing us a new way to interpret and understand the old Arthurian tale. This film calls for repeated viewings!

Anna Agreed. I'll definitely be giving this film another viewing or two at home. Gawain is both relatable and incredibly frustrating; he's not a bad guy, but is he really good? Perhaps, but he definitely has a lot of growing up to do and that's something this quest forces him face. Once he's tripping on 'shrooms, Lowery starts to bend time on us, and Gawain's future splits into different versions of what could be, not just what will be. It's a great device to give us more story, and Lowery was smart to bend the original tale into something that is full of complexity. Patel holds his own here, and the cast behind him is wonderful as well. A lot of people aren't necessarily interested in a film that challenges them, and that's OK. But if you like provocative, weedy, difficult films, I'm guessing you're going to really enjoy this. The cinematography alone warrants big-screen viewing. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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