THE GREEN KNIGHT
starring Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Joel Edgerton, Ralph Nelson
written for the screen and directed by David Lowery
starring Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
written and directed by Michael Sarnoski
by Walter Chaw A thing has no value if there is no risk of losing it. A treasure is only that if there are hobbits. If you're a parent and you've done everything right, and everything goes exactly as it should, your children will know the exquisite pain of your death. The story for us all ideally has the tang of misadventure to it and a sad ending full of irony. It is a great fable without a moral, wrought with temptations--though hopefully, when the curtain falls, free of too much regret. The key to navigating the labyrinth of the Rose Poet's medieval romance "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" is perhaps in its prologue, where it presents the history of the founding of England from the Fall of Troy through to Aeneas's further stories: his conquests and foundings, sure, but also the inevitable decline of his line. A popular version of this history around the time that "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" would have been written holds that Brutus of Troy is the grandson of Aeneas, exiled from Italy because, in fulfillment of a prophecy similar to the one that doomed Oedipus, he accidentally killed his father with an errant arrow. In the course of his wanderings, this Brute, the product of a cursed line beset with hubris and tragic folly, becomes the first king of what would be called England.
The Romans were good at epilogues. Oedipus wandering after his self-mutilation; the many fates of Medea following her filicide, which sometimes found her among the Iranians with her son, in hiding after trying to trick new husband Aegeus into murdering his son, Theseus. "Good" at epilogues in the sense of understanding that the hero's journey seldom ends at their most heroic moment. I've always thought of "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" as a kind of "Tom Bombadil" tangent in the more-travelled core "river" of legends. Howard Pyle's illustrated collections of King Arthur and Robin Hood myths were part of my early education, eventually leading to T.H. White's The Once and Future King and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. For the longest time, the idea of Arthur's betrayal by Guinivere and Lancelot and his eventual death as a Charles Foster Kane figure, festering in resentment in the ruins of Camelot, was almost intolerable for me to bear.
So, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." It's one of the fundamental Middle English Romances but has never taken hold in the popular imagination, I think, because it doesn't provide anything like a traditional catharsis. It doesn't speak of epic battles, magicians (though Morgan le Fey is in the wings if you look hard enough), connections to other tales, or references to major players. No, in place of all the things that are Legend, it has a Christian musing about humility and living in the imitation of grace. Nobody wants a story about a brave knight who discovers that he will save everyone from much suffering if he just accepts the death of what he represents. If he dies as an example of a higher ideal, rather than live for the sake of living. Gawain is the Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi--a child who has grown and sees one possible renewal of the world in his death.
David Lowery's The Green Knight is a glorious spiritual adaptation of the idea at the centre of the text: that this worst of all knights, Gawain (Dev Patel), who isn't even a knight (though he so likes to be thought of as one that he fails to correct those who assume he is), is actually the person in a room full of knights who, alone, upholds the chivalric code. He is proud. He has a common girlfriend, Essel (Alicia Vikander, making a living now as immortal beloveds), who loves him for who and what he is, but because he is a man in a very specific cultural context, he believes that real success is not the acceptance of someone who loves him, but the approval--and status such approval confers--of the King. Arthur (Sean Harris) is well into his dotage, as it happens, and presiding over an endless cocktail party attended by Legends of the Round Table. These are the last days of Rome: bread and circus and the progressive, insidious, inexorable rot wafting up through the gilt and faded pomp. Their glory days are done. Camelot is in decline. And then the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) intrudes on the merriment on the same day a seat at the table opens up, and Gawain is invited to dine with not merely his heroes, but the heroes. The Green Knight has a challenge: he will allow one of these brave men to strike him a single blow. Then, in a year's time, the Green Knight will be allowed to return the same blow in his Green Cathedral in the middle of an impenetrable wood. Gawain is the first and only one to volunteer. Everyone else has become too comfortable in their esteem to risk it on a game.
Arthur reassures Gawain that it is just a game, nothing to worry about, but there's something decadent about it all, something that smells of old flowers and powder. Arthur--is he enjoying Gawain's impetuousness? Hints of vampirism in his enthusiasm and arousal. The beauty of the poem, which Lowery's film captures, is how pathetic it all is, really, these demonstrations and tests of manhood, this jockeying for the approval of a frail old man, his best days well behind him. It bears mentioning in an age of exhausting exposition and dialogue designed to spell everything out as broadly and obviously as possible, The Green Knight is content to treat film as a visual medium as opposed to an expensive PowerPoint presentation. Arthur's chambers look like the gauzy bedrooms of Tony Scott's The Hunger--gorgeous, of course, but anchored by an underpinning of death, sickly-sweet.
In the W.A. Neilson translation of "Sir Gawain and The Green Knight" (the best one), he accentuates the Green Knight's arch disdain for the hedonism of the Round Table: "What! Is this Arthur's house...that is famous through so many realms? Where is now your pride and your conquests, your fierceness, and your earth and your great words?" Arthur rises in the poem; in the film, he never does. He says that he's too old to do this or else he would, and then it's the King who asks his Knights to defend the honour of their endeavour. A small change but a fraught one in that Lowery here demonstrates an understanding of the poem's subtext: that Arthur is all "great words"--and that it's generally the lowliest of men who suffer the most when powerful men say "great words." In the poem, Arthur hands Gawain a "gisarm," a sort of Swiss halberd, to meet the Green Knight. In the film, Arthur hands him Excalibur.
There is immense symbolism in this transfer of a weapon so intimately associated with Britain's creation mythologies, running the gamut from Arthur not valuing the symbolic legacy of his crown to Gawain now laden with the responsibility of representative (if not literal) leadership to still more obscure references to another sword drawn from a stone by Galahad, stolen by Balin, and acquired by Lancelot, who uses it to kill Gawain in a duel between dear friends. In the stories, Lancelot cries for two days at Gawain's grave. There's a hint of something terrible happening in The Green Knight's final, wordless set-piece, and I wonder if this isn't one of the things intimated therein. In other words, the film is altering the myth in ways that are invigorating and provocative. If Arthur gives Gawain Excalibur with which to play a game no other Knight is courageous enough to play, what does The Green Knight say about the state of this story in reflecting the modern state? Our leaders are vile. Our people have no sense of their own culture. Our heroes are untested and driven by the wrong impulses. Our systems are designed for failure by architects altogether too comfortable, living in the past and heedless of the futures they're creating. Gawain, with a single swing, decapitates the Green Knight, and the Green Knight, for his part, gathers his head, reminds Gawain that he has a year to find him in the Green Cathedral, and takes his leave.
The Green Knight invests itself in Gawain's ironic, loaded fame as essentially a dead man walking in a game he doesn't understand and really shouldn't be playing anyway. The analogues to the poison pills we've placed for our children are thick. Essel begs him to run away with her, and if it were me, I would. If it were me 30 years ago, I would do as Gawain does, which is push her aside, nobly, secure in the idea that she could not understand that these pyrrhic sacrifices are made for her. And then I would lose everything important in the pursuit of things that are not. Gawain begins his quest where he's robbed, humiliated, tested to restore the virtue of a slain lady, then tempted to disturb the virtue of another (also played by Vikander) in the home of a Lord (Joel Edgerton) who has taken Gawain in at the hour of Gawain's greatest need. In the poem, the Lord is revealed to be The Green Knight, enchanted by Morgan le Fey to test her brother Arthur's fidelity to his own code of chivalry. In the film, well, The Green Knight isn't a puzzlebox, so there are no answers clearly delineated--no morals easy to parse. All of it is carried off as a transcendent, immersive, even unconscious experience midway between Jodorowsky and Tarkovsky, Malick and Von Trier, an anonymous author from around 1400 and a group of filmmakers in the 2020s. The choice granted to Gawain is to live a dishonest life or die an honest death. The Green Knight offers the possible outcome of just one of these choices. It's so fucking good, because it challenges us to consider the transmutational grace of the other.
In the centre of another forest, in another Green Cathedral, find Rob (Nicolas Cage) living a hermit's existence, a truffle pig his sole companion. His contact with the outside world consists of occasional visits from an unctuous young man, Amir (Alex Wolff), who brings him provisions in exchange for the precious truffles Amir turns around to sell to pretentious, expensive restaurants in booming downtown Portland. One night, people beat Rob badly and abduct his pig, sending Rob on a quest back to civilization to rescue her. The expectation is that he'll do this with violence; the process of Pig demonstrates that there's a different path to becoming whole. It is not unlike The Green Knight's problem, then, in offering the hero two choices: to live an inauthentic life, or to give up everything and all that that implies to preserve the preciousness of the contents of his soul. During the course of the picture, it becomes clear that Rob abandoned culinary stardom when the reason he drove himself to the top of this profession revealed itself to be empty and meaningless. It would be trite if the film were explicit in stating that the death of a wife led to his retreat from swimming in corporate waters, though we glean it from context and performance, and it's bracing to encounter another film that trusts its audience to be reasonably smart, empathetic human beings.
Men often do things that take them away from their families and the things they love because they've been taught that this is the best way to honour their families and the things they love. It's a perverse calculus we inherit: better to be miserable to the point of suicidal in a futile pursuit than to have less materially and in terms of reputation--even at the expense of being more present for the people you love. Rob picked the wrong thing for the right reason, and when the reason dies, he goes into a period of reflection. Now he's drawn back into the game on a mission of not vengeance, but love. The pig is his friend, and its existence is dependent on him. He has a responsibility, and in his grief, he finally recognizes that the only important thing is one's faithfulness to what they love and what loves them back. The key scene takes place in a snooty restaurant serving those tiny portions using chemical gizmos for the appreciation of a select clientele. The owner/head chef of the establishment is Finway (David Knell), whom Rob recognizes as a dishwasher who once dreamed of opening an English pub and serving liver and Scotch eggs. Rob asks what happened to Finway's dream, and Finway, well...Finway cracks under the pressure of all the things he's forsaken in the name of external adulation. The mortal faults are fear of critique and the need for praise. The challenge that Pig poses isn't to haute cuisine but to inauthenticity. Anything done authentically is animated with purpose. Nothing done inauthentically is. If you're paying attention, it's easy to tell when someone's going through the motions. Gawain volunteers to play the game because he believes that's what heroes do. He agrees to lose the game because that's what heroes do.
Rob allows himself to be beaten, and when he confronts the person who's taken his pig, instead of reclaiming her in a hail of hellfire, he calls in ghosts from his former life to cook a dinner that, like the climactic meal prepared in Ratatouille, transports the film's chief antagonist back to the exact point where their passion was born. It's an extraordinarily beautiful moment in a film so patient about this story of traditional failure and the unembarrassed expression of male grief that it will instantly alienate men accustomed to a more bombastic type of release. Both films, The Green Knight and Pig, sport unconventional, some would say feminized, portrayals of men. Gawain is not good at fighting, not good at anything, really. He falls a lot, he bumbles into the wrong places, he's humiliated by children, who leave him to die after they've tired of taunting him. He's terrified most of the time and uncertain the rest of the time. When the film shows him convinced of what he's doing, it makes sure we understand that it's the wrong choice and that people are in pain because of him. Rob in Pig is not a good fighter, either; his secret weapon is that he can remember every meal he's ever served. Plus, he's an artist, a real artist, a genius who comes to understand that the thing he's best at doesn't have the power to make him happy. All it can do is take him back to a time he thought he was happy, but wasn't. Now it's too late for him. Happiness was a dream, and the dreamers are awake. Better to die than to live an inauthentic life. The trick is figuring out how to live well before it's too late for you, too.