What is a romance without failure? There’s plenty of traditional and chivalric romance in writer/director David Lowery’s The Green Knight, and both mostly concern our poor Gawain (Dev Patel) screwing up. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a story about a man riding off to honorably lose his head, has always centered around a confrontation of hubris—an understanding that a moral code is only as strong as the Lancelot/Guinevere affair that breaks it and that a quest’s completion is only as honorable as the temptations to stray from its path. One of Lowery’s most moving narrative additions in his fantastic adaptation is an extended “What if?” sequence that finally enlightens our hero to a simple point: That to err is human, but growing brave enough to forgive oneself is divine.
Lowery’s work is effectively concerned with all the themes—magic, real and religious—of the original poem, but his unique climax brings them all under the thrall of his (and the text’s) interest in and appreciation of human fallibility. Gawain has been a medieval goober throughout the film—not quite a drunk but not not a drunk; a noncommittal lout towards his sex worker lover Essel (Alicia Vikander); greedy towards a ghost, which certainly shows chutzpah if not good judgment; weak in the face of sexual temptation—and the shames of these recognized foibles weigh on him. This isn’t how a good Christian, let alone a Knight of the Round Table, should be! It’s this disconnect, the youthful gap between ideal and reality, that sets the unproven Gawain off on his quest in the first place. An unwavering, dogmatic devotion to this false idea of perfection is his main adversary.
And he’s not incapable of change, or of true-blue heroism: Light peeks its way through the dusty dark of the haunted house in which he completes unfinished spectral business. Lowery gives us a tease of his playful stance towards time and possibility when Gawain’s tied up and robbed by Barry Keoghan’s merry band of ruffians. It’d be so easy, the filmmaking tells us, for Gawain to just sit there and die—to allow a single setback to skeletonize him. Then the camera spins back around and, sorry Alive Gawain, but you’re gonna have to deal with this. This is his first taste of consequence and, subsequently, his first chance to show a little knightly gumption and overcome it. So he does, as good intentions slowly become well-intentioned but flawed actions. While the Lady (also Vikander) ribs him (and us) for thinking that the completion of this quest will instantaneously deem him honorable, it is all Gawain can do to soldier forth—fleeing the seductive situation that led to his latest fuck-up in a flash of post-nut clarity—and attempt to make good on something, if not everything.
When he arrives to accept his decapitating chop from The Green Knight, he flinches. That makes sense. It’s scary as hell, and Lowery lets his actor play it with utter realism in order to deliver a more humanized point. Patel rattles his horny, proud, jittery, jumpy shell around the character’s steel core like he’s always about to have a heart attack. It’s at the performance’s nervous peak where Gawain could fail more, and more explicitly, than ever before. In the source, Gawain stays silent and takes a small nick on the neck because he doesn’t disclose the magical green sash promised to keep him alive. An act of cowardice. Lowery goes more cerebral.
When Gawain’s understandable human weakness rears its head as an axe threatens to sever it, Lowery shocks us: There is a shift in character and in style. Dialogue-free visions flit before our eyes, tragically beautiful and utterly corrupt. If you truly want to categorize The Green Knight as a Christmas movie, here’s where he gets a glimpse from the ghoulish Ghost of Christmas Future. In an extended, desaturated montage, births and deaths plague an aged-up Gawain who, like an idiot, has gotten everything he’s ever wanted.
Reflecting his warped ideas of success and failure, this scene blends the repercussions of the unaltered, unexplored moral imperfection that could propel his life forward. He could become a knight. He could become a king, replacing the fragile and wholesome Arthur as a ruler backed by Morgan le Fay’s dubious magic. He could have a son with Essel, steal him away, then watch as he dies fighting for his father’s flaws. It’s all leading up to that final revelation: That pretending to be some inhuman saint, papering over failure and imperfection with falsity, will get you somewhere but damn you along the way. He pulls off the sash, his head falls off, and we return to the here and now.
When we realize that it is truly a vision, when the color and sound snap back into Lowery’s lush reality, it’s such a relief. It’s cathartic, a moral orgasm in direct contrast to the sinful spurt turning a magical belt into a literal cumrag. But like that earlier ejaculate, it presents the same kind of clear-headedness for Gawain, and for us. We all know what he has to do, and we know he can do it. It’s in the greens of the Knight and the belt, in the linked natures of growth and sin, where it all finally clicks for Gawain. The color is endlessly interpretable—as Vikander herself notes in an earlier monologue—but after this foresight begets insight, Lowery’s final symbolic links are perhaps the strongest of the film. Only from turning away from the hardships of the green are its boons lost; only by confronting these struggles are its bounties accessible. Gawain chooses honesty, owns up to his faults and we can tell that he’s different. Stronger. Calmer. At peace.
The film’s finale leaves it up to us, in a final bit of interpretation, to determine the end that would be most fitting for Gawain’s moral journey. Is the playful Green Knight only commenting on Gawain’s commitment without the intention to really chop his head off? Or is the source going out the window entirely, with the Knight helping Gawain reap exactly what he’s sown? Either could be argued to fit Lowery’s time-warped thematic push, though I like to think that the Knight knew he’d already done his job. Gawain had grown before his eyes, but only by acknowledging the failure in his past, his imperfect present and a flawed future he’ll have to keep working to avoid.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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