J. M. Tyree
David Lowery’s adaptation of The Green Knight is a film about a color that contains some intriguing if inchoate commentary on non-whiteness. The casting of Dev Patel as Gawain and Sarita Choudhury as his sorceress mother represents an obvious challenge to the myth of whiteness underlying the pallid Victorian English folklore tradition. This is particularly clear in the culminating scenes when Gawain, upon the successful completion of his quest, rejects the role of the conquering colonizer-king after inheriting the crown from his white uncle, King Arthur (Sean Harris). These sequences, told in largely dialogue-free tableaux, turn out to be projections playing out in Gawain’s head, an alternate mythology and “reweirding” of the classic poem that creates space for contemplating the (non-white) otherness of The Green Knight itself.
In Gawain’s imaginative ruminations as the “bad king,” class, gender, race, and ethnicity intersect in complicated ways. Gawain envisions himself casting aside his sex-worker lover, Essel (Alicia Vikander), after she gives birth to their biracial son, and marrying an ultra-pale Young Queen (Megan Tiernan) whose red hair evokes the Celtic color of Pre-Raphaelite tresses. Gawain’s choice of queen then signals Celtic dominance over the Saxons, whose suppression has allowed King Arthur’s kingdom to flourish. The imperialist aspect of this corrupted version of Gawain’s once and future kingdom, however, is presented as an undignified fantasy that will nullify itself, resulting in the disasters of war and ultimately the defeat and destruction of Gawain’s regime and the death of his son.
Are King Arthur’s kingdom and its patrimony really worth preserving, based as they are on ideas of home and property that entail unsustainable violence against both people and land, in particular, the human carnage and treeless wastelands that represent the aftermath of the wars plaguing it? In one of few early reviews to discuss these aspects of the film in detail, Angeline Rodriguez perceptively asserts, “Perhaps there should be something besides the endless wheel of blows dealt and received, of people subjugated and dying, terrified in the name of a distant empire.” Perhaps there is another, wiser way to rule, or perhaps unchecked kingly power itself corrupts absolutely? Lowery ends the film by looping back in time to The Green Chapel, with The Green Knight’s cheery delivery of his astonishing send-off line, “Off with your head!” Lowery doesn’t reveal what happens next, a lack of resolution that casts the future as an unknown territory that might be mapped a different way if Gawain survives his encounter with The Green Knight. But, in fact, Lowery never reveals any plausible alternative, nor whether death remains as the only other option to joining the circular table of conquest.
Just prior to the advent of The Green Knight, Gawain is selected to sit by the side of the King and Queen at Christmas time, but there’s a hint of estrangement in the family. Is this due to Gawain’s habits of errancy in the brothel, or is there a whiff of prejudice and marginalization in the air surrounding the family hierarchy, as overseen by a doddering, almost zombie-like royal couple who see in Gawain a hope of vitality in and renewal of a kingdom that, like a certain present-day throne, seems old, tired, and very white? Lowery admitted to Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson that their “extraterrestrial” look was “designed to make people feel uneasy about them.” Robinson also notes that Lowery’s bleak depiction of the aftermath of the Battle of Badon, where Arthur was said to have killed over 900 men single handedly, “calls into question Arthur’s ‘peaceful’ reign.”
Far from “color-blind,” Louise Kiely’s casting works non-whiteness into the essence of the film. This arguably has the effect of throwing into relief the fictional albescence of imperialism in nationalist English mythology, while simultaneously reminding at least some viewers of the historical role of non-white Commonwealth soldiers in Britain’s WWI and WWII armies (or in Imperial Rome’s diverse and global armies in Britain, for that matter). Rodriguez notes that “Arthuriana enjoyed its biggest revival in the 19th century, the era of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and John William Waterhouse, as well as Great Britain’s ‘Imperial Century’ and the establishment of the British Raj.”
Rodriguez argues that Lowery’s film, by contrast, is replete with “thoroughly modern anxieties about race, identity, and the outsider experience.” Alternately, perhaps Lowery’s film attempts not so much an anachronistic retelling designed for contemporary audiences as a new reckoning with a premodern sensibility, at the levels of both form and content—including a pointed challenge to the modern historical fabrication of whiteness as a political weapon.
Gawain’s Mother, meanwhile, sensing an opportune moment to cast a spell around the time of the celebration of the Nativity, summons The Green Knight to the court. Her motives aren’t terribly clear, for if this is a power play designed to bring her son closer to the throne, both of the film’s potential endings would seem to spin out of her control. Her ability to conjure obviously links her to the stories of the Morgan Le Fey figure of Arthurian legends and texts, with her status as protector and/or usurper dependent on the literary source. Representing this character as Gawain’s mother, rather than his aunt or antagonist (as in the poem) efficiently condenses the narrative and adds the element of non-whiteness to a standard reading of her as a powerful woman who influences or even precipitates proceedings, cutting against the grain of maternal cliches. But the film never clarifies her in any straightforward political sense, leaving this thread hanging, a bit like the ending of the film.
In his interview with Robinson, Lowery acknowledged the influence of Hammer Horror films. Yet the desaturated look created for The Green Knight by its cinematographer, Andrew Droz Palermo, represents a departure both from the feast of colors in postwar horror pictures— Terence Fisher’s Dracula (1958), Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977)—as well as from the aesthetics of typical mainstream summer box office fare (where A24 exceeded expectations with its release). The impact of the The Green Knight’s color processing is to highlight the dream-like and slow narrative structure of a film with remarkable passages of predominantly visual storytelling, notably one shot that circles an eerie forest in which the protagonist seems to have transformed into a corpse, foreshadowing his journey towards what could turn out to be either his corruption or his redemption.
The color of Gawain’s skeleton, like the skull of Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman), which the knight retrieves from a pond and reunites with her body as her pale ghost looks on, calls to mind a number of artistic, literary, and cultural resonances connected to absence, terror, and death, from the non-appearance of white on the color wheel to the “ghastly whiteness” and the “hump like a snow hill” of Herman Melville’s whale in Moby-Dick (1851). Lowery may paint in a muted palette of greys, but his depiction of off-white bones serves as a reminder that, as Pierre-Auguste Renoir once instructed a student, “White does not exist in nature.”
Indeed, for Lowery non-whiteness appears in a context that is primarily ecological here. Gawain seeks The Green Chapel, the abode of The Green Knight, on his quest: the mad forest Scavenger (Barry Keoghan), who robs Gawain and leaves him for dead, claims that they’re all already “in it.” Thomas Pynchon, in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), described a force he called the Counterforce, represented by “the living green, against the dead white.” That hippy, trippy, raunchy, countercultural, and psychedelic vision of the 1970s appears to be an inspiration to Lowery here, as he seeks as an antidote to the racialized vision of Arthurian legend peddled by imperialists from the Victorian era and revived by the latter-day mythologies of Brexit Britain, with its whitewashed simulacra of England’s supposedly glorious past.
The Green Knight counteracts the poisonous “blood and soil” aspects of “Merry England” or “Deep England” promoted by conservatives as a nostalgic picture of pre-industrial rural village life, one in supposed proximity and harmony with the land. It also provides a counterpoint to the dubious nostalgia for (white) community in A24’s earlier horror hit, Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019), dissected by Eugene “Joey” Albin and Julie A. Ward for its attraction to “Nordic nationalism.” As a series with a corporate brand, A24 horror (or “A24orror,” as it might be called) attempts to paste a degree of hipness onto a genre which uses a shared xenophobia to catapult incendiaries into the keep of reactionary affect.
Folk horror plays on myths as lure and nightmare, but The Green Knight is more focused on the radical otherness of the natural world. Lowery’s “horror-ized” version of Gawain’s quest, with its defamiliarizing photography of Ireland’s forests, bogs, and caves, creates a landscape that feels far from “natural.” It contains uncanny specters, eerie giants, haunted woods, talking foxes, and, of course, the story’s titular tree-like green weirdo who picks up his own head off the floor after Gawain severs it. Nature has grown tired of having axes driven into its neck and is now fighting back, threatening to destabilize the human world. These details feel redolent of what English horror writer Gary Budden calls “landscape punk,” an emergent aesthetic for weird fiction based on questioning the political meaning of home: “home to me is a bastard place, multi-cultural and multi-layered, mixed, impure.”
In his development of this ideal, Budden invokes the myths of Arthurian legend as reframed for modern audiences by the countercultural figure of Penny Rimbaud, the founder of the leftist anarchist punk band Crass. Budden quotes Rimbaud’s Shibboleth: My Revolting Life: “Perhaps it was his love of the mythical past, King Arthur and his knights, that brought him back. Or perhaps he felt as I did, that real change could only be affected in the place that you most understood: home.” Lowery’s film embeds something of Budden’s dream of an alternative Arthurian home in its reinterpretation of the meaning of chivalry. Apart from his fatal outburst against The Green Knight near the film’s opening, Gawain’s lack of interest in violence is pointed, while his nightmare vision of his future self is that of a militarist. He’s more likely to be seen shivering in a cave or vomiting up wild fungi than wielding his sword in the manner of cinematic Arthurian convention. All this suggests the mythic past can have a future other than that of serving as a reactionary prop or object of abuse. Instead, the medieval enchantment of the story of The Green Knight can be seen as a challenge to modern instrumental rationality and the imperialist projects associated with it (including the pseudo-science surrounding the invention of whiteness as a fictitious racial marker).
But if there is a stand-in for the filmmaker in this film, it’s not Gawain but rather the Lady character, also played by Vikander, whose remarkable monologue on the triumph of green fecundity over male-identified endeavors follows her claim that she likes to “change” the narratives in the stories that she copies into the books in her library. As an alternate take on the stories of Arthurian legend, the film’s source-text itself might be said to do the same, providing a precedent for Lowery’s poetic revisions to received ideas. In fact, in another remarkable set-piece featuring this character, Vikander’s Lady creates an arresting portrait of the knight using a version of a camera obscura. The light forms a topsy-turvy image derived from a forerunner technology of the cinema, resulting in the camera obscura’s characteristically upside-down picture that provides a tidy metaphor for The Green Knight’s uncanny inversions of nationalist English myths.
J. M. Tyree is a contributing editor to Film Quarterly and teaches at VCUarts. His book, Wonder, Horror, and Mystery in Contemporary Cinema: Letters on Malick, Von Trier, and Kieślowski, co-authored with Morgan Meis, is forthcoming from punctum books.