Rated R, mainly because it is an A24 horror. The real surprising thing is that I had a really weird epiphany about this film. I don't deny that this movie should be rated R. It totally should be. It's just that it's not as R as it feels. There's some mild nudity, some weird nudity, some sexual content, and a little bit of blood. It's really tame, but it feels like you are watching something abhorrent. That's pretty part and parcel for an A24 movie. R.
DIRECTOR: David Lowery
I learned some stuff about literature through watching this movie. But moreover, I learned something about myself. I've never read the whole thing of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I've only actually read the excerpt from the senior textbook I teach from. It's a tough piece of text and I understand a bit of what is going on in the short form, mainly because the teachers' edition helps me out with some of the bigger points. But first of all, I've been mispronouncing "Gawain" if this film has any accuracy behind it.
But I also might be fundamentally misunderstanding the story. I wish I was an expert at everything. Let's put that out there first. I'm sure my genius father was slightly disappointed that I'm not a Sir Gawain expert because that was his bread and butter. That was his jam. Anything Arthurian was his wheelhouse and here I am faking the excerpt of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But I always read that story as The Little Engine That Could. I don't know if I'm right or not, but the movie implies that I'm very very wrong on my interpretation of the story. I always read the story of tiny Sir Gawain and the fact that he was the only one who had the courage to accept the Green Knight's challenge. There was Arthur and his Round Table, all paralyzed by the notion of this giant green knight visiting them on Christmas. When Gawain attacks the Green Knight, we discover his true bravery when he accepts the second half of the challenge. Instead, Lowery paints this story of ego. Gawain doesn't attack the knight because of some sense of valor or courage. He does so because he's a small man who is desperate for attention. The movie tells of his insecurity and the fact that he has borderline doomed himself to Hell by accepting this foolish challenge.
From that perspective, Lowery makes a story that I kind of enjoyed the first time and makes me really want to reexamine it. Gawain in the excerpt kind of was a flat character. He's always going to choose the right thing, even when he kind of / sort of betrays the people who take him in towards the end of the story. But as much as this is a story about Gawain's attempt to survive the impossible, Lowery turns this into a story about his soul and what it means to have true courage. There's something absolutely absurd about the tale to begin with. Gawain shouldn't even address the Green Knight. It's one of those things where nature or demons directly laugh at the weaknesses of mankind. The Green Knight's challenge is an unfair one. Knowing that he'll survive whatever blow that the competitor offers, Gawain isn't given the whole set of circumstances before taking the challenge. But that is also a test for Gawain. After all, Gawain doesn't have to kill the Green Knight. The rules, as stated by the Knight, are that Gawain gets the first blow and a year later, the Knight would return the favor. It is a story about cheating on both fronts. The Green Knight is immortal and Gawain wanted to renege on the second part of the agreement, the returning of the blow.
But there's something really cool about Lowery's ending. It's very A24. (Note: I've learned to love A24 more when I take long breaks from the movies.) Gawain offers his head at first, thinking that he can outsmart The Green Knight in the same way that The Green Knight cheated him. He knew that he'd gain immortality with the green band given him. But even then, he turns coward. We're supposed to shame Gawain in this moment because he runs from the fight, but I might honestly do the same. Sorry, pain also sucks and I imagine that being beheaded and surviving might be no fun. But Lowery seeds in that moral element to the story. Gawain gets the belt through an extramarital affair. It's very much that temptress archetype embodied. (Joel Edgerton's character is also very odd for the story, but that's another thing.) In my version of the story, Gawain steals it and that's kind of true here. But instead of being an element of quick-wittedness, it feels very gross when he takes the belt. It's because Edgerton's character gives him a moment to confess and Gawain leaves carrying his adultery and his thievery around his waist.
But I get distracted. Again. The cool thing is the nature of what honor and valor are. When Gawain is prepping himself for death, he continually shows the fear of death that the story has been teasing. He flinches and begs for his life, much to the confusion of the Green Knight. It is on that last swing that we see this cool, silent, alternate history. I kind of figured that's what was going on. But even with that accurate guess, the sequence is fantastic. That last sequence puts the entire travel narrative into perspective. Gawain is given a glimpse into his real failures. As Arthur's replacement, which his soul desperately wants, he seems kind of miserable. (Don't worry, everyone is miserable. It's an A24 film.) There's this feeling of unjust success. It's in that moment we have that Christmas Carol element. He sees the future with him taking the easy route and he realizes the coward he is. It's because the movie is a horror movie that he isn't given the happy ending and that's what makes it interesting. Because the Green Knight needs to kill him to get the ending that would justify his moral change.
It's a really strong movie. I dug it way more than I thought I would. It's not an amazing movie. But it takes what might be considered dry content and makes a meal out of it. It looks gorgeous. While it has pervy elements, it never feels full on gross. This is what I want out of A24. It's gorgeously shot and the story and performances are nearly perfect.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.