At this point it’s common knowledge that movies constructed by the production company known as A24 have been mostly for a certain kind of crowd. Their appeal is drawing in those who value film as evolving art, and those looking for interesting and idiosyncratic cinematic voices. The people involved with the now well-known company aren’t entirely geared toward monetary box-office success, but rather, seeing how various concepts might co-exist with contemporary and unconventional storytelling. It’s one of the many reasons the company has such a diverse portfolio of films, spanning across every genre you can think of. So it was only a matter of time before this particular sub-genre ended up on their radar. And that sub-genre is none other than the sword and sorcery epic. Or sword and shield. Or sword and sandal, depending on the time period. But I digress.
Anywho, despite meshing a plethora of pleasing and engaging elements, these kind of films are surprisingly scarce in the modern age of the cineplex. There was a time it felt a revitalization thanks to Gladiator (2000), which was later joined by fantastical swashbucklers like Pirates of the Carribean (2003). Unfortunately that was short-lived in retrospect. And even though these stories have never left the small screen, and gained a resurgence on multiple streaming services, the big screen offerings remained lacking. At least severely lacking in worthwhile entries anyway.
Admittingly, one famous property that always seems to be rehashed every couple of years is King Arthur. The legendary character as well as the Arthurian era is usually the safest bet when it comes to creating and re-creating stories that audiences can get behind. Yet unsurprisingly enough, there’s tons of material around this age that doesn’t involve Arthur himself, but rather (gasp!) OTHER characters. I know, who knew right? So leave it to A24 to dip its figurative toe in the well, and venture down the courageous path of conceptualizing (and adapting) its own distinct feature. Enter The Green Knight (2021); a simple yet vast premise that subverts all expectations and delivers on overflowing surrealism, sweeping epicness, and engrossing scope.
As the story goes, in the kingdom of Camelot, after the birth of Christ, old and sickly King Arthur (Sean Harris) is visited by a gravelly, hulking, tree-like creature with a sweet axe. The emerald giant lays a strange challenge upon the Knights of the Round Table — If someone bests the monster in combat, said victor must seek him out a year later for a rematch. So to speak. Before any of Arthur’s soldiers can accept the challenge, his nephew Gawain (Dev Patel), steps up to the plate. While wielding the sword Excalibur itself, the young man defeats the monster and is praised by his peers. After a fast year of boozing and debauchery, the headstrong and impulsive lad sets out on a journey to test his will and character by not only facing the knight again, but seizing his own greatness. If such a thing is even possible. A soaring quest ensues.
This immersive tale of knights, swords, and sorcery slowly sets up an abysmally bleak tone and an insurmountably striking atmosphere. The various shots and sequences of mountainous landscapes, plateaus, countryside, and forest terrain with thick mists, fog, and dark skies is uncannily breathtaking as well as serenely mysterious. Director David Lowery (who also produced, edited, and wrote the screenplay, adapted from ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’) and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo put together and filmed these visuals in such a way that they’re as artistic in presentation as they are realistic. Filming mostly took place in Ireland if you’re curious. And it definitely makes this humble schmoe want to visit just to get a glimpse of these sights, though the story does a wonderful job of dropping a viewer right in the middle of it all, like a pebble dropped into the ocean.
Much like directing legends such as Sam Raimi, Denis Villeneuve, and Robert Eggers, Lowery uses authenticity as an essential and invaluable tool in creating dazzling imagery that tells a story where dialogue is rich yet poetic and exposition is slim but unnecessary. Not to mention the usages of naturalistic lighting, sound, music, and effects are beyond seamless, blending with every transition and moment with purity and prestige.
While the story is simplistic, it’s extremely layered with ambiguous intent, providing very little in sustainable answers but asking many broad, ambitious questions. Religion, paganism, spirituality, nature, philosophy, death, connection, legacy, honor, courage, identity, nihilism, and mankind being returned to the earth are just a few topics touched upon here. With varying results. If you’re familiar with the original source material, you’ll have a semi-deeper understanding of what transpires. Maybe. BUT if not, in pure A24 fashion, the devil is in the details throughout the film’s runtime. So be warned as this is an open-ended film with a slew of directions you can take towards its ending. So pay attention.
Performance wise while sporting a solid cast that includes Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Ellen Kellyman, Ralph Ineson and Patrick Duffy, this film was expertly carried and surprisingly tailor made for Dev Patel, who puts in one of the most captivating performances of his career. His personality, delivery, mannerisms, and emotions gave gracious life and soul to the flawed yet determined Gawain, subsequently bringing this obscure character into the spotlight while standing next to legends like Arthur, Guinevere, Morgan Le Fe, and Merlin. Plus this certainly informs creators that plenty of other characters from this age can be given the same life and substance to thrive, if given the chance to do so.
Bottom line, this film is nothing short of semi-revolutionary — Enthralling, hypnotic, mythic, meditative, gorgeous, and visually intoxicating, A24 and David Lowery have meticulously composed a majestic escapist fantasy with complexity and gravitas that hasn’t been seen in some time. This is another film I can see examined in college courses and cinephile groups for years to come. Or simply discussed amongst friends who want to decipher the whole thing over some beers. While time will tell if this has the same staying power as other masterful features from the company’s extensive library, what’s on display here from the haunting first scene to final frame is indisputable. Simply put — A glorious wonder to behold. A work of myth and legend. Artistry in its purest and boldest form. A24 does it once again.
Review by Marcus Wilturner