The Best Movie I Don't Want You to See

"The Green Knight" arrives in theaters at precisely the wrong moment

The Best Movie I Don't Want You to See
Dev Patel in “The Green Knight”

“The Green Knight” should absolutely be seen in a movie theater. You should absolutely not go see “The Green Knight” in a movie theater.

Both of these statements are true, which makes David Lowery’s new movie the Schrödinger’s cat of this week’s openings. As the Delta variant spreads and we all take one step back toward the practical cautions of recent months, gathering with a crowd to look at images on a wall once more seems bold at best, foolhardy at worst. But distributors are still putting out films, and while some major studios are able to offer streaming alternatives – Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” opens in theaters and on Disney+ this weekend – specialty shops like A24, which is releasing “The Green Knight,” don’t have that option. It’s a genuine shame in this case: A movie that is sumptuously, even tactilely, visual – a movie intoxicated with its own beautifully cryptic imagery – is also a movie I cannot in good conscience advise you to see on a big screen. (A24 has not yet announced a release date for streaming platforms.)

Regardless of when and where you see it, “The Green Knight” is an art-house stunner that answers to no logic but its own; it exists somewhere between myth and existential parable. It’s a quest saga that circles back on itself, a meditation on both the necessity and futility of becoming a mature human being and moving forward with your life. It’s going to drive some people bonkers. And it is capital-C Cinema with the throttle wide open.

Ty Burr’s Watch List is a reader-supported newsletter. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. Those who want to support my work are encouraged to take out a paid subscription.

Lowery first came to notice with “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013),  a Depression-era drama that almost fetishistically recreated the aura of early 70s lovers-on-the-lam films like Robert Altman’s “Thieves Like Us” or Terrence Malick’s “Badlands.”  He then made “Pete’s Dragon” (2016), the rare Disney remake that can legitimately be called soulful. “A Ghost Story” (2017) had Casey Affleck wandering through the afterlife in a bedsheet, like something out of a “Peanuts” Halloween strip, but it was also a spare, moving tale of regret and acceptance, with a scene involving Rooney Mara and an apple pie that’s probably the greatest single performance by a Condolence Pastry. Then Lowery made “The Old Man and the Gun” (2018), Robert Redford’s farewell to the acting game and another gentle throwback to New Hollywood rhythms and values. Point is, he’s gifted, inward-looking, and motivated more by challenges of genre and drama than audience desires. We need directors like Lowery.

A scene from “The Green Knight”

With “The Green Knight,” he takes the anonymously written 14th-century chivalric romance “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” and gives it a good shake. Some of the most unusual touches – an exchange of kisses late in the film – come straight from the source, while elsewhere Lowery gives free rein to his imagination. Dev Patel is ideally cast as Gawain: A dissolute party-boy when the movie opens, he naively takes up the challenge when a Christmas Day feast held by his uncle, King Arthur (Sean Harris), is interrupted by an axe-bearing tree creature – the “Green Man” of ancient folklore. Gawain hacks off the Knight’s head; “Fine,” says the Knight as he picks up his head and vanishes into the mist, “Come find me in a year, and I’ll do the same for you.” And so a journey of mud and manhood and mysticism begins.

Alicia Vikander turns up twice, as a brothel whore with a Jean Seberg haircut and as an elegantly seductive noblewoman. Barry Keoghan, the creepiest actor currently in movies, adds another diseased soul to his gallery. Lowery’s visual influences fly in from all over the map: The medieval mindscapes of Hieronymus Bosch as filtered through the austere epic vistas of a Roy Andersson film; the Pre-Raphaelites; Stanley Kubrick; Hammer horror films; the sculptural skyspaces of James Turrell; the otherworldly histories of Kahn & Selesnick. What’s remarkable is that all this magpie gleaning coheres onscreen into a singular experience, one that carries a moral but whose greater meaning hovers just beyond sight and sense. “The Green Knight” climaxes with a long, wordless section that daringly casts the hero’s life far into the future before reeling him and us back to the anchored present, or what seems like it. But he and we are never quite sure where we are on this journey – it’s the quest narrative as cosmic hamster wheel.

You don’t often get movies that go this far out on a limb of its own imagining, and “The Green Knight” slips off occasionally into the merely pretentious. It more than once courts silliness, too, and if you’re in the wrong mood, you may think it’s hilarious for all the wrong reasons or cause for a stiff drink. And it’s possible this movie will date as poorly as “Excalibur” (1981), a similarly stylized Arthurian pageant that now plays like a Monty Python sketch (although Helen Mirren makes a hot Morgana le Fay and Nicol Williamson has a good time hamming it up as Merlin).

Right now, “The Green Knight” feels like something burbling up from our common unconscious. Will it strike a chord with audiences? Will they even see it? As I’m writing, responses are pouring in to a question I posed in an earlier thread: Would you go to a movie theater right now? There are a lot of you saying yes, both cautiously and enthusiastically, but the majority are leaning no, which doesn’t bode well for “The Green Knight” at the box office. I wish I could recommend the trip, but you’re on your own. Still, see it you should, whenever or wherever. Lowery has fashioned an allegory from ancient cloth that somehow speaks to the free-floating anxieties of the early 21st century – the half-dreamt realization that we’re not in control of our destinies and that nature is the great green axeman at the end of every road.

If you enjoyed this edition of Ty Burr’s Watch List, please feel free to share it with friends.

Or subscribe. Thank you!