The struggle of goodness versus greatness takes center stage in ‘The Green Knight’, an intimate tale that eschews the epic for the personal


HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) — Lizzo once asked “why a man great ’til he gotta be great?” and that feels like the central question that “The Green Knight” wrestles with. 

Our central character seems to have all the makings of greatness — he’s the nephew of the king and aspires to knighthood — but when faced with truly embodying greatness, he stumbles. He’s great until he has to be (or at least his family believes he has to be).

“The Green Knight” is an adaptation of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”, a 14th-century poem most kids pretended to read in high school. Director David Lowery, maybe best known for the visually bizarre exercise in grief “A Ghost Story”, lovingly renders the poem, not as an epic fantasy adventure, but a journey into the self for Dev Patel’s rascally and bumbling Gawain. 

The sweeping shots of vast landscapes and towering castles may at first give the image of an Arthurian epic, it’s true, and there are characters even within the movie who seem to believe it should be: King Arthur asks “is it wrong to want greatness for you?” of his nephew, clearly picturing Gawain fulfilling the epic quests as he did in his bygone youth. 

Gawain’s mother seems to want greatness for him, too, summoning the mythical Green Knight herself to disrupt the Christmas merriment to offer his game. 

Ralph Ineson as titular Green Knight in A24’s The Green Knight (A24)

The game is simple. Hit the Green Knight with his ax, and then in a year’s time find the Green Knight, return his ax, and take the same blow in kind. 

Arthur reminds Gawain as he steps up: “It’s only a game.” 

Gawain cuts off the Green Knight’s head when he kneels and offers his neck.

Of course, the Green Knight rises again, promises to see Gawain in a year and leaves. 

It doesn’t seem Gawain does much with his year. He doesn’t seem to want to even complete the game, but his uncle and his mother’s aspirations of greatness set him on the path. As he leaves, Esel, his prostitute girlfriend asks the central question of the movie: “why greatness? Isn’t goodness enough?” 

His aspirations of greatness: to be a knight, to have great stories to tell, all feel lesser compared to the actual growth and humanity he finds in the wilderness. A ghost requests he find her head where it was tossed into a pond, and he asks what he’ll get in return. She shames him for the question. What kind of person only helps a murdered woman because he may get something in return? 

The cinematography of the film is gorgeous in even the simplest of shots. Every frame is imbued with weight and meaning, to the point where moments that might not be intended to feel tense have suspense to them. 

The fantasy, the dreams, they all could easily be a big, epic fantasy that culminates into a battle between good and evil but instead, the central conflict of the movie is Gawain’s coming-of-age. The narrative, the actual literal, textual structure of the plot, is merely a skeleton that props up the living organism of Gawain’s personal growth. 

This is, for fear of sounding pretentious, cinema. It might not be a popcorn-friendly flick for a casual night out. David Lowery offers little exposition; a casual viewer could easily miss the presence of iconic literary characters like King Arthur or Morgan La Fay.

The folks in the movie don’t know they’re in a story, so they don’t swagger about expositing about Excalibur or Guinevere. Gawain doesn’t recount his uncle’s glories as a way to clue the viewer in, because everyone around him already knows the story, and the audience does too.

Like the best fantasy stories, “The Green Knight” does not labor over the mechanics of how giants the size of mountains walk through the land or why a woman without a head asks a favor. They just are.

Familiarity with the source material makes the story clearer and richer, but it doesn’t feel like required reading. The dialogue is not as densely period-accurate as something like “The VVitch” or “The Lighthouse” which gives “The Green Knight” a little more room for jokes, which adds more to the storybook feel.

A dreamy march through Arthurian lore that is as dense and inscrutable as it is simple; “The Green Knight” might not be for everyone, but it is certainly worthy of your consideration if you enjoy the fantasy genre or literature.

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