From Wagner to “Game of Thrones” and back again, pop-cultural medievalism has a habit of leavening sublimity and solemnity with heavy doses of intended or inadvertent silliness. The most sincere compliment I can pay “The Green Knight” is that it often feels like a tribute to “The Seventh Seal” by way of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Or maybe vice versa, with some Led Zeppelin deep cuts thrown in. (The metal-acquainted score is by Daniel Hart.) It’s a movie about death, honor and the desire to take control of fate that is also a knowing exploration of the preposterousness of such notions. It has haunting, heartbreaking, erotically unsettling moments, as well as monsters, fools and a magical fox so cute it could be a Disney sidekick.
Like “Die Hard,” this is a Christmas movie, which is to say a religious allegory in sometimes hokey holiday dress. At a Yuletide gathering, the melancholy king asks his nephew for a story of real-life adventure, and Gawain, who has spent the morning in the arms of Essel (Alicia Vikander), has nothing to share. The party is interrupted by a somber green giant (voiced by Ralph Ineson), who offers a challenge that only Gawain is foolish enough to accept. He can smite the Green Knight on the condition that, the next Christmas, he allows the knight to smite him back.
This playground challenge results in a beheading and sends Gawain on a hallucinatory journey toward, around and through the inevitability of death. He encounters treacherous thieves (led by Barry Keoghan), a reanimated Saint Winifred (Erin Kellyman), a lord (Joel Edgerton) and his lady and other figures conjured from the mists of time by Lowery, his cinematographer (Andrew Droz Palermo) and the special-effects artists.
Sometimes the going is murky, both visually and thematically. England in wintertime has rarely been gloomier, and when the wan daylight fades you have to squint and crane your neck to see what’s going on. Similarly, you may stroke your chin, emoji-style, as you ponder the shaggy-dog plot and its layers of significance. Part of the persistent charm of old texts like “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” lies in their stubborn unknowability. They come to us from a sensibility — and a language, in this case the Middle English of the English Midlands — that lies tantalizingly beyond our reach, even though many of the words, ideas and tropes are uncanny in their familiarity.
Lowery respects this weirdness, adding eccentric flourishes of his own. This is hardly a faithful cinematic rendering of the Gawain poem, if such a thing were even possible. Lowery layers in ambiguities peculiar to his chosen medium, casting some performers in more than one role and allowing the linear movement of the story to stop, reverse and come unraveled. The question of whether Gawain is dreaming or awake — alive or dead, one self or another — is at times urgent, at times moot. Similarly indeterminate is the puzzle of his free will. Is he acting out a preordained script, or writing the story of his life? Is he learning anything of value, or just stumbling along in search of the next adventure? Is this a concept album or a jam session?