David Lowery's The Green Knight is an iconoclastic middle finger to the Christian West
Notwithstanding some stunning cinematography and an acceptable effort by Daniel Hart to bite Philip Glass' style, this film lacks both head and heart. It's one thing to fall short in an artistic effort; it's another thing entirely to fall short in an adaptation, wherein you throw out the source material's most critical elements while keeping only hollow imagery.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th-century Middle English romance, which was best rendered by J.R.R. Tolkein (and which influenced the great fantasy writers' writ), is not just about a fledgling knight who beheads a magical being, who then has to wait a year to have his measure meted back. It's about virtue and honor; about the meaning and import of Arthur's court; about the knights who kept the light of Christian civilization alive in Western Europe after the fall of Rome and raised chivalric culture amongst bloodthirsty pagans; about besting temptation; about white and black magic.
Everything timeless about the original text that made it archetypal and unforgettable has been discarded from the get-go, starting with the protagonist's virtue and naivety. Gawain, a drunk, wakes up in a whorehouse, invested in a prostitute whose bells indicate her trade has spoiled more than her spirit. The great Arthur, like his legend in this film, has been thinned and weakened to the point of frailty. Other key characters have been combined and or conflated, including Morgan le Fay and Gaiwain's witch mother, whereas others who are one and the same (i.e. the Lord and the Green Knight) are never connected.
In the final part of the film, rather than take the blow owed him by the Green Knight, Gaiwan ostensibly flees in terror. Of course, like the crucified Christ in Scorsese's Last Temptation, Gawain is actually just envisioning an alternate course of events where he lives a lie and a coward's life, alienating his loved ones and ultimately getting them killed. Gaiwan ultimately accepts the blade and the film ends. It is important here to note that the choice he makes is not ultimately one made out of bravery or virtue; its an Epicurean recoil from suffering, tied up with selfish interest.
Again, regardless of Gaiwan's apparent justification, the film ends prematurely. The weight of the story is what follows and with it, the tale's lesson. Of course, for our eudaemonistic culture of death, what should follow might bore the majority: talk of virtue and honor, bravery and faith. Lowery is obviously free to do whatever he pleases, including denigrate and spit on one of the most important early works in the English canon, but it's hard not to regard his choice as anything but meaningless transgression: as juvenile.
If his intent were simply to de-Christianize the canon as other leftists are wont to do, then he should have leaned in harder to his emphasis on the black contra the white magic; on the witch and Merlin rather than on the morality of the play. Instead, Lowery is noncommittal. We are shown a world of spirit and magic, but where the inborne morality remains low and materialistic. The film begins on Christmas morning, but like the icon of the Virgin on Gaiwan's shield, the religious meaning is broken up by deviants and deviance.
While Lowery's film is garbage, perhaps it is the Green Knight our society deserves: hollow, drained of meaning, and forgettable.