The Green Knight Review
“Where I see a story can be improved, I improve it.”
While the above is a paraphrase of the original dialogue, I could not be bothered to return to this pretentious movie to provide the exact quote. The intention of the writer/director, David Lowery, is encapsulated by the paraphrase, regardless, and I see no reason why the gist of his thesis for this movie cannot be represented best by the paraphrase provided. After all, the arrogance with which I assign the quote is no more overlarge than Lowery’s in his reimagining of Sir Gawain as a cowardly, perfidious, hot-headed, and prideful knight. At least my paraphrase is not slanderous, unlike Lowery’s paraphrase of the original epic poem (meaning that this film is not a paraphrase at all, but mean-spirited slander). And, truly, Lowery’s film is a slander of the original “Maiden’s Knight” himself, for it is a subversion of expectations that subverts itself through a strawman fallacy. Gawain, as depicted in Lowery’s vision, is not compassionate, nor chivalrous, nor brave, and, therefore, earns no such sympathies likewise from the audience. Rather, he is altogether irredeemable, being a much-maligned embodiment of “toxic masculinity”. Therefore, there is not much to be learned from Gawain himself, being that he is a hollow dummy upon which Lowery can make passes with a lance lowered lazily against him. It is a one-sided jousting tournament. This is not the Gawain of the original story, nor of the “The Greene Knight” poem, nor of the other famous Gawain story involving the Dame Ragnelle where he gifts the greatest gift of women to his loathly wife (sovereignty). This Gawain is a soulless caricature, and not much else. He feels the need to “be a honorable knight”, but his primary character traits are antithetical to the “honorable knight” he aspires to be (known as). He would rather have the reputation, superficially, than put in the effort for reform and self-improvement (primarily because he has no “self” to improve).
The female characters, on the other hand— while also being empty-souled exercises in moral concepts akin to Gawain—are by and large high-handed remonstrations against “toxic masculinity”. They have little in the way of personality or character. The Lady Bertilak, for instance, is the character through which Lowery speaks the abovementioned paraphrase. She is the aristocratic version of Gawain’s favorite prostitute, Essel. She is learned and skilled in calligraphy and water/light magical photography. She is an agent of Gawain’s mother, and of the director, serving their dual purposes simultaneously. She does nothing throughout the film but tempt Gawain to his baser nature and then reprimand him, all the while providing recursive meta-textualization of the story itself and voicing the director’s self-involved views on the story. It is disingenuous at best, and bad storytelling besides. This modern/post-modern fascination with metanarratives has yet to be proven worthwhile, especially when such fixations distract from the primary goal of a storyteller: telling a cohesive, coherent story with fully-rounded characters. Truly, symbolisms and themes and “deeper meanings” will emerge on their own, naturally, if the writer/author/director/whatever focuses on telling a good story. When a storyteller is more concerned with a “message” the story suffers more often than not, regardless of whether the “message” is needful or apt to the time period. Lady Bertilak is a casualty of Lowery’s predilection to preach, becoming a captious, bipolar cardboard-cutout by the close of the second act.
Contrasting with Lady Bertilak, in both station and disposition, is the prostitute Essel. Essel loves Gawain. This much we know about her. It is her defining attribute: her love for Gawain and her frustration with his reluctance to marry her. She asks only that she have his ear, his hand, his heart, and be his wife. But she is lowborn and, as stated, a prostitute atop that. This is a fantasy movie, of course, but it is also one that purports to deal with human themes and modern problems of “toxic masculinity”. What the movie fails to address (even as it is premised to address it) is Gawain’s duties as not only a knight, but as royalty. What of his obligations to the kingdom? As the nephew of a childless king he must consider his marriage carefully, for with it come alliances that may make or break not only Camelot, but the lives of his people. In the vision Gawain sees toward the end of the film a war occurs. We are not provided reasons for this war, but it certainly cannot be because he chose to marry a noble lady and NOT a prostitute. Yet, this is what may be easily implied by the sequence of events. The director provides no direct reason for this subsequent war, nor the ensuing dissolution of Camelot, but that is likely because he could not think of one that would justify Gawain’s marriage to Essel rather than to a noble lady of a foreign court. Is it because Gawain had not matured enough from his quest to make better decisions? Is it because he had a bastard son that raised arms against him for the right to the throne, much as Mordred is known to do in the superior movie “Excalibur”? Best not to ponder it too much because Lowery certainly didn’t. And that is the primary problem with this film: it pretends to be deep, but swims in the kiddie pool of spectacle and, admittedly, beautiful cinematography.
Another character (loosely speaking) is Saint Winifred. She appears near the halfway point after Gawain has been laughably disarmed, hogtied, and humiliated by a trio of adolescent urchins. Her character within the story seems to exist solely to state that men can do bad things to women, such as beheading them when they refuse to lie with them. This seems needless, to be frank, in the context of this film. Thus far, while Gawain shows cowardice and arrogance and other dishonorable traits, he never demonstrates violence toward women (or children, since, again, he has been easily disarmed), so the inclusion of this segment as part of his lesson is baffling. Does Gawain’s mother suspect that her son would harm women if given the chance? Or does Winifred exist so the jarring exchange may take place? It is a strange little interrupting interlude, especially when he tries to touch her face to test if she is real and she reproaches him for presuming he may touch her. He clearly suspects that she is a spirit, and is proven correct afterward, but it passes as another strike against Gawain’s morality. Moments later she requests that he retrieve her head from the pond. He asks what she will give him in exchange and she reproaches him again. While this scene is supposed to be a comment on “male entitlement” it is jarring and does not fit with the rest of the movie, particularly Winifred’s modernized tone and wording. It exists solely so the director may preach (to the choir) about how wicked it is for a man to think he should “get something from a woman in return for a favor”. But the truth is that Gawain is risking his life to retrieve Winifred’s head and put her to rest. He could simply walk away, and would have been wise to do so, especially since she was so skittish as to flinch from his innocent attempt to ascertain if she was real or not. Overall, this scene is completely disjointed from the narrative and serves no purpose except as an indulgence for the director. After all, Gawain was seeking shelter and Winifred surprised him after he had explored the house and found it isolated and abandoned, laying down to sleep. Lowery seems to want the narrative to go out of its own way (and pacing) to provide reasons to dislike Gawain.
Speaking of narrative, the whole narrative is set into motion by Gawain’s mother. In the original mythology Gawain’s mother is Morgause, so I will condescend to dub her Morgause for the sake of this review, even if she is treated within the film as if she is Morgan Le Fay. Morgause wants to test her son. She wants him to mature to be a man, but not just any man: an honorable man. What is an honorable man? It is difficult to discern within this film, mainly because the film is dead-set against Gawain ever becoming an honorable man. If anything, the film wishes to prevent him from being an honorable man as if to subvert the character arc with which it is misleading the audience (literally heading the Hero’s Journey off at a stroke). Morgause sends the Green Knight to challenge King Arthur’s court (while she is absent from her own throne at the right hand of King Arthur) and her hot-headed son steps forward to prove himself to his uncle and to defend the honor of the court (speciously). Morgause uses her son’s pride to ensnare him into a “game”, as King Arthur deems it, to prioritize his life to more selfless service (I suppose). The problem with this premise, however, is that it shows that the “toxic masculinity” of Gawain has been allowed to flourish erstwhile. Why has he degenerated so pathetically? Where was his mother during this time of ongoing moral decay? What happened to parental responsibility? Why did she wait so long to assert herself over her son? Is it because Camelot is a “patriarchy”? How so? There are three thrones in front of the Round Table, two of which are habitually occupied by women. Indeed, Arthur’s wife (Guenivere, presumably) takes the Green Knight’s scroll from Arthur’s hand and reads it herself rather than allowing Arthur to read it. Her voice is then subsumed by the Green Knight’s, whose voice, in turn, is controlled by Morgause. Morgause wrote the letter herself, and she and her fellow Fae/witches conjured the Green Knight, or, at least, they control him. The power of the women in Camelot, in the wild, and in Bertilak’s castle is quite prominent. The giants, for instance, all seem to be female. Gawain asks to ride upon a giantess’s shoulders, but the fox forbids him from doing so. Elsewhere, the men are devoid of agency. King Arthur is enfeebled, his own body being “unwilling” to meet the Green Knight’s challenge. Lord Bertilak is rendered utterly harmless in the movie, whereas in the original story he is imposing. In the film Lord Bertilak poses little threat, whereas Lady Bertilak and her “blind” waiting woman are seemingly omniscient, watching Gawain while he sleeps, appearing unprompted and unseen in the background, and even overpowering him sexually (as Lady Bertilak does when she grips him with her hand while offering him the green sash). The aristocratic women in the film are quite powerful. The lowborn women (such as Essel and Winifred) have no power and can only make requests for either Gawain’s love or service. Is there a message in this dynamic? If so, it is muddled. Not all women can be aristocratic to escape victimization, and yet those women that are aristocratic are as manipulative as the aristocratic men. What is the answer? I doubt there is even a question, to be honest. Lowery just likes to blow smoke and pretend it is genie powder, even as you are choking on the intake.
And what about the ending? It is as inconsistent as the rest of the film, both in terms of narrative and themes. My fiancee and I both concluded that Sir Gawain did not bow his head to the Green Knight and doff his enchanted sash because he had matured to the point of being willing to lay his life down for honor, nor had he reconciled his pride with Nature and the erasure it brings to mankind. No, Gawain simply did not want to live such a life as was shown to him in the vision. His cowardice and his pride, thus, spurred him to accept his premature death rather than attempt any modicum of growth. Of course, the conclusion of the film is open-ended and welcomes interpretation, but Lowery has demonized the “Maiden’s Knight” so much by the culmination of the film that Gawain is irredeemable to the last. He is a strawman of lust and privilege and cowardice. Why else would the fox—who is likely his mother in disguise, though they do not list the voice actress anywhere—attempt to dissuade Gawain from meeting the Green Knight? She was attempting to humble him, but by the end he realized what she could not realize: he could not change. Hence why he says “It wouldn’t matter if it was a single year or a hundred years”. He was not only talking about his cowardice, but his core identity, which was chaff to the very end. He knew he could not change, and so he would rather die than face a future of disgrace. The question, then, becomes: what is the point? There isn’t one. It is just the shallow spectacle of wild gesticulation pretending to be Art. It is a straw knight: posed upright and plated in gleaming armor, but hollow, ultimately spun about like a weathervane by the cultural winds. It is the rustling of chaff and only fools would believe it has anything important to say.