David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” – You’ll never meet your heroes

Poster for "The Green Knight"

By the time Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) reaches the midpoint of his yearlong march to face the Green Knight (played under lush tree-creature effects by Game of Thrones genre legend/UK Office dickhead Ralph Ineson), the legend of the Christmas Game they performed before the Round Table at Camelot has already spread far and wide across the land, and the facts have drifted accordingly. The version we see at the outset is that ailing King Arthur (Sean Harris) welcomes the Green Knight, an unexpected and terrifying presence, into his hall, and invites him to speak his piece. The Knight’s rather invasive offer – he ventriloquizes Queen Guinevere (Kate Dickie) to read it out in his thunderous voice – is that any man willing should try to land a blow upon him. Should they succeed, they will win the Green Knight’s massive battleaxe. And one year hence, that selfsame knight shall come and meet him in his own hall, the Green Chapel, where he shall return whatever blow that he received, be it a nick or a cleave. When the king’s nephew Gawain (pronounced “GAR-win” in the film) steps past a dozen armed knights to volunteer, he is neither armed nor even a knight himself. The other men awkwardly mill about not giving him a sword until King Arthur hands off his own legendary blade, Excalibur. And as the Green Knight sets down his axe and kneels to present a typically blunt-edged fairy tale lesson on the great wisdom and just rewards that mercy toward the helpless can bring you, Gawain promptly earns a different lesson by chopping the Knight’s head clean off, after demanding that everyone remember what has happened this Christmas Day. After a beat, the Green Knight rises, plucks his severed head off the floor, and walks away, reminding Gawain of the single year he has left to live. And lo, by the time a peasant is drunkenly repeating this pointedly pointless tale back to Gawain in a village pub, Sir Gawain bested the Green Knight with his – that’s to say, Gawain’s – mighty axe, you’d better believe it. Gawain is wielding a mighty axe now, so it’s an easy mistake to make. Indeed, we’re forced to presume a great deal about Gawain’s travels and deeds offscreen by the ways in which people react to him – he is not merely a knight of the Round Table, but one on a noble quest! And he is not at all afraid to be killed in nasty ways.

When FilmWonk Podcast co-host Daniel and I emerged from the Seattle International Film Festival screening of writer/director David Lowery‘s 2017 film A Ghost Story, we were the only ones in the lobby and on the street, with the rest of the audience having stuck around to hear Lowery do a Q&A (as a rule, we don’t stick around for these if we’re reviewing the film). We wandered in silence to our waiting vehicle as the film and the fullness of time washed over us. A Ghost Story was an elegiac reflection on mortality from the point of view of a lingering ghost, played impassively onscreen by Casey Affleck under a sheet. The Green Knight has many bones in common with that film, insofar as both contain reflections on the impermanence of life, deeds, houses, and the stories we tell about them, and they both feature a desperate central performance from a character on the same long march to the grave. The difference here is that Patel plays an avatar for us to root for as he walks the path of all mortals just a bit more consciously than most, rather than a blank, dead canvas on which to project our own feelings on the matter. As in A Ghost Story, there is a scene in which a character explicitly calls this out – here, the unnamed Lady of a forested hunting manor (Alicia Vikander) monologues about the evanescence of the grand idols that men build, each waiting to be reclaimed by creeping vines and the unrelenting green of nature. Of course, the joke’s on her, because her medieval aristocrat’s view isn’t nearly long enough if she thinks that the green will outlast the brown, the red, and the black as the sun expands and the Earth is scoured of all life, just as may have happened to all the other huge dancing gravestones that share our orbit around an unremarkable star in an unremarkable galaxy in an indifferent universe. Must I really go there? The film seems to invite it, with Lowery smugly slipping in a Hubble Deep Field image of thousands of galaxies in a tiny patch of sky, whose light stretches all the way back to the Big Bang, amid Gawain’s half-starved, psilocybin-induced hallucinations. If you missed that, don’t fret. It’s where we all came from, and it’s where we’ll all return, spread out infinitely as our stories echo onward, attenuated beyond recovery even as they blast forth from our planet at the speed of light, ripples in an unfathomably massive pond.

Still from "The Green Knight"

On my honor, The Green Knight is more upbeat and more of an advancement on Lowery’s themes than I’m making it sound. Patel is forced to depict Gawain’s conflicted stoicism and grapple with his impending doom in more overt and specific ways than whoever that fellow beneath the sheet might have been (possibly the key grip in a scene or two?). Gawain also struggles with the vast lore and legend that has already cropped up around this dumb, vainglorious thing that he did to show off for his royal uncle, which has earned him accolades and presumably free drinks from strangers which are utterly failing to make up for the fact that he is the one who will have to die for it. He’ll have to watch the pain behind the eyes of his paid lady friend Essel (also played by Vikander) who truly seems to love him in spite of (or on top of) their transactional relationship, even as she watches him march off to a doom entirely of his own making – perhaps twice. A doom that his uncle even warned him not to seek out, reminding him in a veiled whisper to remember that it’s “just a game”. In some accounts of the Triumph of Julius Caesar, a slave would march behind the glorified would-be emperor whispering in his ear, Memento mori – “Remember you are mortal.” To hear another legendary monarch say to his own nephew and heir apparent that he should remember to play the game feels akin to this. Even in the rough-and-tumble world of medieval England, rulers seldom have to worry about their own mortality on any field of battle with the same frequency as the thousands of peasants they drag to the same slaughter (Richard the Third notwithstanding). Memento ludere feels like a similar utterance – remember to play, whether great games or minor ones, because yours will be a privileged life as long as you play it well. And yet, Gawain doesn’t choose that life. He opts into the grand gesture. Becomes the legend. Throws himself into a doom for the ages. How many heroes do we laud whose stories amount to little more than this? I recall poor Pat Tillman, whose name we’re only still speaking because he gave up an NFL career to be killed by friendly fire in a war that failed to achieve any of its purported objectives and which lasted for nearly as much time on this planet as Tillman himself. I won’t mention his name again, because I really don’t mean to pick on him, or even to single him out. He is just the one who came most readily to mind as a modern face of men winning glory, and in the wake of his death, the amoral husk of American patriotism has hollowed out the flag into a series of multicolored lines by people who think that if we can just empower a few more hypothetical heroes with thoughtless and robotic gestures of gratitude for their service, we’ll never have to think too hard about the conditions of the society that they’re meant to serve and then rejoin. As George R.R. Martin said, by way of lowly not-quite-knight Sandor Clegane, “Knights are for killing!” Perhaps that’s why we need Great Men. Why they become tools of bellicose propaganda, whether or not they might have desired this in life. The powerful need symbols to persuade the rest of us that their power is worth dying for. Or killing for.

By and by, Gawain’s travels take him to a lonely Scottish battlefield, tended by an unnamed scavenger (Barry Keoghan) who offers directions (in exchange for coin), while milling around grave-robbing and lamenting that there was nobody left to bury the dead. “But don’t ye fret!” he assures Gawain, “Nature will do its trick,” pulling them into the ground and erasing any trace of them. On top of whether to trust and compensate this dubious source of directions (whom Keoghan plays with maximum creep factor – you can practically smell the Plague on him), Gawain finds himself in other fairytale morality plays as well, including one grand bargain involving sex, honor, and loyalty – and the transactional dimensions of each. This happens at the hunting lodge mentioned above, where the Lord of the Manor is played by Joel Edgerton, and his wife (Vikander) seeks to tempt Gawain into sexual compromise, and the three of them, strangers yesterday, are somehow in a more intimate version of the Green Knight’s bargain above: a promise to return whatever is given. There’s a lot going on at this manor. But if I’m being honest, the film’s soporific quality had fully kicked in by this point, and I don’t have much to say about this sequence except that Patel and Vikander’s performances continued to impress me. At the Ghost Story screening (which began at close to 10PM), Lowery had told us beforehand to feel free and fall asleep during the film if we need to, and at least one critic in the row behind me seemed to have taken that advice to heart for The Green Knight, quietly snoring away. I managed to stay conscious, but it hardly matters. I only mention this because as much as this film hits a number of complex thematic beats, its narrative is that of a bedtime story, and it is very easy to follow. What’s more, unlike A Ghost Story (which affected me in ways I do not care to repeat), this is one that I’ll definitely be revisiting, and I expect this morality play will give me more in repeat viewing than the sum of the film’s lush visuals did the first time. The Green Knight is absolutely gorgeous, it must be said – cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (A Ghost Story) returns to work with Lowery and makes an absolute feast of the UK countryside, occasionally enhanced with what I presume were wholly CGI castles. Some early, shaky CGI fire is a minor distraction in the opening shot, but the remainder of the film’s backgrounds are as deep and expansive as its themes. Costumer Malgosia Turzanska, as well as the entire hair and makeup department, deliver a treat here as well – and for a film with appropriately muted medieval lighting (a mix of flame and cool, clouded outdoor sun), they frankly could have gotten away with a lot less.

Still from "The Green Knight"

The film has two final shots – one a living* title card that appears and fades away before the end credits, and one a minor vignette involving a child’s plaything that appears afterward. Stay for both. Not only because you’ll need a moment to let the experience of this film wash over you, but because the latter feels like a tidy expression of hope amid the film’s dour things. All of our grandest works, our holiest places, our most elaborate cathedrals – in time, they all become overgrown and discarded, desanctified and repurposed until nothing beside remains. But they also become the playthings and wandering places of whoever and whatever innocent and wide-eyed life comes next. And no matter how many self-insert characters Lowery puts into his films to make it nice and clear that everything we know and love will fail to outlast the heat death of the universe, he still inexplicably feels like an optimist about it.

FilmWonk rating: 9 out of 10

*Correction: The original version of this review stated that both A Ghost Story and The Green Knight shared a 4:3 aspect ratio. AGS was indeed 4:3, but TGK was actually 1.85:1. We regret the error, which embarrassingly persisted even after adding stills to the post.

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #186 – “Old” (dir. M. Night Shyamalan), “Mosquita y Mari” (2012) (dir. Aurora Guerrero)

This week, Glenn and Daniel see what’s new from the twisted mind of M. Night Shyamalan, who now has a body of work that we actively look forward to, however we end up reacting to each film. And then we go back to 2012, to check out an overlooked indie coming-of-age LGBT teen romance from that year’s Sundance Film Festival, Mosquita Y Mari, from director Aurora Guerrero (49:18).

Still from "Mosquita y Mari" (2012)

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (Mosquita y Mari): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Old): 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:26] Review: Mosquita y Mari
  • [16:46] Review: Old
  • [27:28] Spoilers: Old
  • Daniel first heard about Mosquita y Mari from a plug on the Twitter feed of Talia Lavin (@chick_in_kiev), an excellent political writer and scholar of online right-wing extremism – her book, Culture Warlords, is definitely worth a read if you’d like some insight into how the United States got into the mess we’re currently in as a country.
  • Glenn declined to re-litigate Moonlight on today’s episode, in which Daniel chose violence by casually referring to it as a “depressing slog” – check out our Moonlight review on our 100th episode.
  • The movie starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando was The Missouri Breaks, a 1976 western directed by Arthur Penn. Probably not worth a stabbing or a cartoon portrayal of schizophrenia.

Listen above, or download: Mosquita Y Mari, Old (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #185 – “Black Widow” (dir. Cate Shortland)

This week, Glenn and Daniel check out ScarJo‘s MCU swansong, and perhaps the start of an action blockbuster career for director Cate Shortland (40:17).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:30] Review: Black Widow
  • [25:33] Spoilers: Black Widow

Listen above, or download: Black Widow (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play)

“The Forever Purge” (dir. Everardo Gout) – Delivers on a promise it only just made

Poster for "The Forever Purge"

The Forever Purge benefited from the frivolity and camp that the franchise has indulged in up to this point. My base expectation was that none of the characters would matter much to me, some of them would die, and little narrative progress would be made, because the real villain of the Purge is always ourselves – our division, our hatred, and our stubborn refusal to build anything new as we dance to a hateful tune played by dead men. In the real America, that’s how we’ve gone from two “failed” impeachments – neither of which were the product of a real deliberative process – to a riot over a failed Trump reelection by a pack of malicious and deluded morons whose political bosses have no interest in investigating the flames they deliberately stoked. Despite the Republican Party’s hard turn against democracy and voting rights, America has a long way to go before it reaches Purge World, largely because most Americans are too desperate, lazy, or geographically diffuse to bother with such a thing. That’s my quasi-optimistic view: America will slouch its way into national survival, give or take a half million hapless souls every few years from one preventable disaster or another. But there are other schools of thought, including that of screenwriter James DeMonaco, whose pre-Purge filmography includes co-writing the 1996 Robin Williams comedy Jack, which seems appropriate. Because like the premature aging disease that Jack suffered from in that film – I know The Purge would be a bit less funny in real life. And hey, that’s fine for a campy horror franchise. In the earlier days of the podcast, we praised this franchise’s attempts at world-building, but I’ve never expected The Purge to be anything more or less than it is: An excuse to indulge in some guilt-free escapist murder at the movie theater in a world that’s already over-saturated with the zombie genre (Ana de la Reguera‘s recent sortie in Vegas notwithstanding), and wants to see a bit more light and terror draining from its victims’ eyes. And oh, the camp it delivers: There have been frat kids with creepy monologues, furries, over-elaborate traps, and teenagers in lingerie who try to murder shopkeepers for trying to stop them from stealing candy bars. When the series first tried to ground itself in the real world with The Purge: Election Year, my reaction was to say that any mass-murdering government that can be canceled with a single democratic election hardly deserves to be called a dystopia. So you can imagine my surprise at The Forever Purge, a franchise conclusion which not only swapped out most of the camp for daylight, dire sincerity, pessimism, and a wider but credible scope, but did so with a group of characters that showed me just enough of their inner lives to make me care whether they lived or died. The film may be a plausible conclusion of what came before, or a sharp turn into critical respectability, but either way, it is certainly the best of the franchise.

A bit of the camp is still there – we see a pair of creepy men dressed as bunny rabbits capture Adela (de la Reguera) in a goat-cage neck-trap before she is rescued by a combination of her bat-wielding boss and her own hard-nosed past. For you see, good people, none of this was supposed to happen in broad daylight. The Purge was last night, and Adela was merely returning to work the next morning to find that most of her kitchen staff – undocumented immigrants from Mexico just like herself – have disappeared. This is merely the first sign and portent – we also see a newsman shot dead on camera in the middle of his post-Purge roundup of sanitation crews packing up the corpses and hosing blood into the storm drains. What’s one more body? Archive footage. Fake news. Perhaps we didn’t really see what we saw. We’re already 30 minutes into the film by the time the Ever After Purge gang shows its hand, and this is easily when it gets most exciting. What the New Founding Fathers of America (NFFA) did with their power (after an off-screen ousting and presumed execution of the Purge-canceling President Roan), was return to their previous method of holding power: persuade the poor to kill each other once a year. Their grift spawned an entire Purge industry, of which we’ve learned bits and pieces throughout the series. There are security systems, dropdown gates, and some gleeful participation for the upper middle class, immunity for government officials, weapons restrictions and paid protection militias for the poor, and an annual bloodbath that has canonically only been going on since 2014, the year after the first film came out, and continues through at least 2040. This bent version of America has gradually morphed and molded itself into a perennial murder machine, and The Forever Purge reveals what they’ve been preparing so carefully for: an accelerationist boogaloo. A 26-year water slide into a white supremacist-instigated second American Civil War, which will kick off with a campaign of well-organized ethnic cleansing against anyone deemed Unamerican, as measured by the pigment of their skin, deemed “invaders” by their haunting main street broadcasts and creepy skull-logo flag.

Still from "The Forever Purge"

Adela, her husband Juan (Tenoch Huerta from Narcos: Mexico), and their friend T.T. (Alejandro Ella), are all on the run with the Tucker family, a clan of white ranchers, and Juan and T.T.’s employer. The Tuckers have narrowly escaped the populist clutches of the first purger of the morning, another Tucker ranch-hand named Kirk (Will Brittain), who seems keen to do a bit of righteous wealth reshuffling before being smacked down with an appropriately hacked and slashed white-moderate speech from Tucker patriarch Caleb (Will Patton). Caleb tells Kirk he’s a hypocrite and a liar who is nonetheless correct about this country’s unfairness, racial and wealth inequality, and inhumanity dating back to its land theft from the continent’s Indigenous people, and concludes his rant by telling him, on behalf of the Tucker family, to go fuck himself. Several shootouts later, the remaining Tuckers are on the run with their immigrant rescuers. When the race war kicks off in earnest, Juan has worked with Tucker son and boss Dylan (Josh Lucas) for long enough that they might have become friends if not for Dylan’s none-too-subtle racism against Mexicans. By the time the two are sitting in a truck cab, no love lost between them despite each having saved the other’s life in turns, we end up with a fascinating conversation in which Juan (whose English is a bit less practiced than Adela’s) asks Dylan to “slice the shit” and explain his problem with Mexicans. Dylan, a rich redneck who has spent the entire opening act engaging in minor racist hostilities but doing the usual white person thing of keeping the racist bones in his body nice and deniable, does something unexpected: he tells the truth. Dylan says he doesn’t have any problem with Mexicans (or Latinos in general), but he doesn’t understand them any better than they understand him, and he thinks the world would be better off if we all – that’s to say, each of the arbitrary, inconsistent, and overlapping racial cohorts on Earth, “stuck to our own”. That Dylan makes this observation – an outright confession of his belief in white nationalism – at a moment in which he feels both vindicated by reality and conflicted about how to treat the trio of Mexicans to whom he and his family owe their lives, made this character far more interesting to me than he had been up until this point, even if his beliefs aren’t much less despicable than those of the Ever After Purgers. Because white separatists know what they’re really asking for. Donald Trump knew what he was asking for when he demanded that tens of millions of people get deported, because sometime at Wharton, I expect one of his professors (or the smarter kids he presumably paid to write his term papers) might have mentioned to him that the only way that such a massive forced migration has ever been performed in human history is through an act of genocide. That an avowed white separatist is willing to admit his beliefs even as their veiled hatred and fence-straddling impracticality is being brought into sharp relief did make me care a bit less about his survival, but it also made me wonder just how many people in the United States – with most of their neighborhoods, schools, churches, and employers more segregated than they were in the 1960s – feel the same way.

The film’s last hour is an exhilarating ride as the real silent majority – the people who just want to dodge the carnage and stay alive – makes a run en masse for the Mexican border. This is where the action gets more elaborate and large-scale, and the cinematography (by longtime Gout collaborator Luis David Sansans) and editing (by Blumhouse/Michael Bay vet Todd E. Miller and French pulp action editor Vincent Tabaillon) keep everything nice and coherent, even as the light waxes and wanes, and the action setpieces vary from a close-quarters melee in the flickering aftermath of a flipped Sheriff’s van to a nearly 3-minute nighttime tracking shot as Ever After Purgers, the NFFA-controlled US military (including tanks), and numerous innocent bystanders battle it out for control of downtown El Paso. Everyone creeps closer to the border wall cutting straight through the center of the Paso Del Norte – the binational metroplex formed by El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. It is during this sequence that The Forever Purge tames the practical and geographical chaos (and ably demonstrates what a dumb fucking idea a border wall is and always was) and gives an impression of dozens of simultaneous low-level urban skirmishes happening just off screen as our heroes creep through, with a vibe that’s equal parts Sicario and Cloverfield. I can’t say much about the subplot involving anti-Purge activist Chiago Harjo, played by the outstanding Lakota actor Zahn McClarnon (whose depiction of Akecheta was a highlight of the second season of HBO’s Westworld), but what I can say is: I wanted more of it. The inclusion of this subplot feels like an overdue acknowledgement that any discussion of who America truly belongs to is incomplete without its Indigenous peoples, but it is functionally a deus ex machina, providing cover for the main characters without ever giving much of an individual reason why – only a tribal one which verges on noble savage stereotyping. This is a hard balance to strike, because similar shorthand is used with other characters, helpers and villains alike. But given how crucial Chiago’s contributions are to the film’s ending, I daresay he deserved better than to be identified on television as “Texas Tribal Leader” in order to add to the train of exposition about the country being a boiling cauldron of white rage, and then swoop in at the end to save the main characters. But this is a comparatively minor complaint. Chiago and his friends also get to flip vehicles with compound crossbows and explosive arrows. It’s all very cool, even if it revives a bit of the camp from above while remaining self-serious.

Still from "The Forever Purge"

Anyway, if you want to see neo-Nazis die, this movie’s got em in droves, and we get to see them shot, stabbed, and blown apart in all sorts of entertaining ways, as they richly deserve in both fiction and the real world. One such moment is performed with gusto by Juan and Adela, making satisfying use of the language barrier that exists with a pack of inept hillbillies who refuse to learn a word of Spanish despite living in Texas (which has 7 million native speakers). I’m tempted to scoff at the seemingly hopeful voiceover that plays into the credits, but for the film to end with the knowledge that anti-Purge militias are springing up in New York and elsewhere to fight the Ever After Purgers is only a minor consolation, because it functions as a friendly reminder that if we ever do have another civil war in the real America, it is the right-wing militias that will have a head start, being that Antifa only exists as an organized force in the fevered dreams and knowing lies of right-wing politicians and pundits. Also, we have yet to hear what’s happened with any of America’s vast store of larger weapons, up to and including nuclear bombers, and it’s perhaps best not to think about those. We also don’t learn which parts of the military, National Guard, and police have joined in with the Ever After Purgers, but the answer is certainly greater than zero. That would be a rather unpleasant story to experience, I think, which perhaps helps to explain why I also didn’t scoff at Mexico and Canada briefly opening their borders to American refugees. Because when it comes down to it, we’re a scary bunch sometimes, and it’s definitely better to have us as invited guests than the entitled invasion force we would surely be otherwise.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10