“Remember, it’s just a game.”
In my humble opinion, one of the fun things about auteurism as a critical framework is that, in certain circumstances, it can help to piece together why a particular director doesn’t work for me. Just as a viewer can instinctively connect with a director’s style and ambitions, it’s equally possible to find an accomplished filmmaker’s approach to be totally bewildering.
This is the case for me with David Lowery. I have seen all of Lowery’s features with the exception of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” and I always walk away relatively disappointed – no matter what mode he’s working in. And Lowery’s career has indeed been pretty diverse: jumping from Disney pictures (“Pete’s Dragon” and the forthcoming “Peter Pan & Wendy”) to an austere indie drama (“A Ghost Story”) to a laidback crime film (“The Old Man & the Gun”), the director is difficult to put in a single box. Throughout, Lowery has remained an impeccable formal stylist and a keen explorer of a few specific thematic threads, most notably an interrogation of fables, myths and stories, whether it’s a child’s relationship with a dragon, the urban legend of an aging bank robber, or a ghost’s place in the afterlife. Whether you like his films or not, he always brings his own personal style to the table: he’s an auteur in the truest sense of the word.
“The Green Knight,” Lowery’s latest and probably Film Twitter’s consensus favorite of the year so far, is quite unmistakably a David Lowery film. Set on Christmas Day in the Arthurian period, the film follows Gawain (Dev Patel), who is the nephew of the noble King Arthur (Sean Harris). He spends his days and nights with Essel (Alicia Vikander), but he has yet to prove himself as a warrior. As such, he feels out of place among Arthur’s brave soldiers, who spend the Christmas feast regaling one another with stories and legends — though his uncle requests a tale, there are no stories for Gawain to tell. Gawain will get a chance when, perhaps through magical circumstances, a Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) appears in the King’s hall with a challenge. The Green Knight offers a game: strike him with a blow wherever you wish, and one year hence, the man who strikes must meet the Knight and have the blow returned. Gawain, encouraged by the hope that it’s just a game, gladly steps up to the Knight’s challenge and severs his head. Unfortunately, this doesn’t kill the Knight, who picks up his head, laughs, and warns Gawain: the blow will be returned at a green chapel on the next Christmas Day.
Thus, after waiting and dreading his fate for a year, Gawain embarks on an arduous journey to face the Knight and complete the game. As many have noted in early reviews and commentary, this is a film that carefully proposes questions of heroism and the role of quests, of the games men play in search of glory, of how legends are made and how masculine codes lead men to seek to make themselves immortal through stories and myths. Truthfully, it’s a film that ends in a very funny place, concluding with the punchline to what amounts to an extended, feature-length joke on its main character, whose desire to match up to the men around him seals his grisly fate. Using Sir Gawain’s journey to meet the Green Knight to bring these ideas to fruition, Lowery once again finds a fascinating vehicle for his thematic preoccupations. With this adaptation of the Arthurian tale, Lowery has also perhaps achieved his finest visual feat yet. He’s a fabulous creator of images, from the opening shot of a crown descending on Gawain’s head to the atmosphere of the final leg of the journey to meet the Knight.
Despite these appealing elements, I remain unconvinced of Lowery as a filmmaker. His style as a director feels less like a cohesive set of formal skills and more like a dozen visual flourishes in search of something more complete – an amalgamation of parallel montages, temporal games and long takes. As evidenced by the famous pie-eating scene in “A Ghost Story,” Lowery is a director with a special emphasis on duration. Truth be told, he’s probably one of the few American filmmakers whose artier work deserves to be viewed through the lens of slow cinema. At his best, Lowery has a good eye for how slowness and the long take can illuminate something about the emotional world of the characters; I remember being devastated by Mara’s performance in that extended take (which actually has some parallels to a very similar scene with Lee Kang-sheng and a cabbage in Tsai Ming-liang’s slow cinema masterpiece “Stray Dogs”). At his worst, Lowery’s long takes and slow pace can feel like a self-conscious affectation, an overly stylized quirk with no real political, narrative or emotional motivation.
“Self-conscious affectation” is probably an apt phrase to describe “The Green Knight’s” style as a whole. Despite its period dialogue (some of which I imagine is taken directly from the poem), much of the film is playfully postmodern, from its chapter breaks to the dynamic camera movements – one shot quite literally rotates the camera 180 to turn the world upside down. Unfortunately, the playfulness of the framework and the dark humor of the narrative only seep through to the film itself on rare occasions. Instead, much of the film is stuck in a mode of self-conscious and deliberate weirdness, with very little emotional underpinning to the strange happenings. Giants roam, heads are found at the bottom of lakes, and Daniel Hart’s multi-faceted musical score puts an exclamation point on the dramatic strangeness of the endeavor, but the film leans on its weirdness as a crutch. At times, it seems like Lowery is attempting to approach a surrealist style, but unlike the best of the surrealists — David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, or even Yorgos Lanthimos, to use a recent example — there’s a lack of danger to the images. There’s little to laugh at in the absurdity, not a single moment to be scared of, and worst of all, no real sense of dread or feeling of the uncanny: the only real reaction provoked is “Huh, that’s weird.”
So, what we’re left with is a rather lengthy, formally rigorous film, where both the employment of slow time and the form are far less effective than they should be. It is very possible that I’ve missed the boat here, much as I’ve missed the boat with Lowery’s previous features. But regardless of the compelling thematic through lines that define his work, I still feel like Lowery is a filmmaker constantly striving for meaning with each complex and mystifying frame, rather than actually infusing his images with meaning. “The Green Knight” is curious and occasionally inspired, with plenty to say about masculinity and myth — there’s no doubt about it. One must applaud the ambition on display here; my initial internal reaction after the screening was something akin to, “Well, at least it’s going for something.” Yet in any event, I still can’t escape the feeling that it’s a lot of empty flash to no real meaningful experiential end.
Oh, well—perhaps the next Lowery will be the one to click for me. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go turn in my Film Twitter cinephile card for liking the new Disney film more than the latest A24 movie.
“The Green Knight” is now playing in theaters.