In theaters this weekend, a creeping crown lands from the sky upon a man’s head and consumes him in fire. Giants striding a canyon refuse calls for a ride. And a tree asks to play a game, and if there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s maybe just ... don’t do that?
Modern livin’ doesn’t mean the old fables are done with us.
Sometimes words fail to illustrate a beautiful thing, which is unfortunate in these precise circumstances. Much like Dev Patel’s Sir Gawain in new A24 fantasy-drama “The Green Knight,” I will undertake a futile quest anyway, with my own hope of some higher reward that I won’t even be around to enjoy: getting you to see this weird-as-hell and gorgeous movie.
Director/writer/editor/producer David Lowery’s film adaptation of the 14th-century poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is as haunted as any horror movie artifact, be it a killer VHS tape or a cabin in the woods. It's not a matter of frights here — the film just leaves you with feelings you can’t put names to even days later.
We’re all in good company: In his introduction for a new Penguin printing of the poem, Lowery writes that “when you watch the finished film, you will see evidence of my … journey through a text I did not thoroughly comprehend. … There is, to put it mildly, a whole lot going on here.”
For those not quite up on their Middle English literature — I am not — the timeless tale written by an anonymous author concerns King Arthur’s nephew, Gawain, and a chivalric hero’s journey. Lowery’s telling finds the restless young man one Christmas, moving from a debauched night in Camelot with his would-be lady of less than noble station (Alicia Vikander) to a holiday feast at the round table. Surrounded by legendary knights with legendary stories to their names, royal Uncle Arthur asks Gawain to spin an entertaining yarn of his own.
"No tales to tell yet,” Gawain replies.
Fate, in fine mythic fashion, literally knocks at the castle door in the form of the Green Knight, a mystical behemoth both monstrous and gallant, his body a twisted mass of bark and branch. The interloper challenges the whole court to a Christmas game. Whoever strikes him will get to take the fabulous axe he rode in with, but that person also must meet the Green Knight in a green chapel a year hence. There, the jade giant will be able to return the earlier blow in equal measure.
Gawain, seeking the honor afforded a hero of King Arthur’s court, takes up the game. He beheads the Green Knight, but a lack of a noggin is more of a flesh wound for enchanted forest warriors. In retrospect, that tracks; our guy is built like a bookshelf. The mysterious man grabs his head, promises to meet Gawain again next Christmas and rides off laughing.
That’s the premise, like the premise of “The Seventh Seal” is that two guys plays chess.