Review: “The Green Knight” asks “What are you afraid of?”

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About a week before I graduated college, my fraternity (yes, I was in a frat) held an event called Senior Couch Night.

It’s a semesterly party where brothers come together to drink and listen as graduating seniors share stories of all the ridiculousness and debauchery they took part in before and after class during their time in college. I graduated with two other brothers who weren’t short on tales to tell that may or may not have been exaggerated and elicited plenty of laughs amongst us all during the event. It was a good time listening to them tell stories of their feats, drinking themselves silly at tailgates, and making oafs of themselves in the process.

However, when it came time to tell my stories I had noticeably fewer things to say about my particular saga in college. You see, despite being a part of a fraternity I played my time in college mostly safe. I didn’t party nearly as hard as some my brothers did. I didn’t go out of my way to live life in the moment or go out on spontaneous trips and events while in school. I was terrible at talking to women too, so I had next to nothing to say there. I basically lived a fairly boring existence in college during a period where it was the best time to cut loose and not play things so safely.

Now, I am definitely not extolling all the virtues of Greek Life here or that drinking yourself to near-death is a story one should have. There are plenty of things that my House took part in that I had zero interest in ever being a part of and not all the stories they told were worth having that night too. But the point is, I deeply regretted not being more adventurous, more fearless, and just not taking enough risks during my early 20s and my peak youth years in college. I always had some excuse to not go on that big international trip. Always worried about looking like a weirdo talking to a girl I was attracted too. I was even terrified to a certain extent of my own brothers, people who I called and still call my friends, because to me they were just so cool and I was just a little lame nerdy kid unable to cut loose. It was intimidating.

It’s something I still think about today as I still don’t have a ton of stories to tell at age 31. Though I have written recently about accepting my regrets, it still pains me that my anxiety basically robbed me of a lot of joys I could’ve had early in life and still to this day.

Director David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” opens on a similar scene on Christmas day between King Arthur himself and his knight Gawain played by Dev Patel. Arthur asks Gawain to tell him a story of his life so that he may better know his knight but Gawain somberly says he has none to tell. It’s from here the story of this old Arthurian myth kicks off and the message of this particular tale is made clear as a mystical branch-covered knight is summoned to Arthur’s halls and challenges the roundtable to a duel. The Green Knight states that anyone who can land a blow to him will win his green ax, however, the winner must return to his Green Chapel in one year to receive an equal blow from himself. Gawain, perhaps looking to finally have a story of his own to tell takes up this challenge but becomes confused when the Green Knight appears to allow him to cut off his head. After dealing the blow, the knight rises, reminds the court of his promise, and leaves.

“Merry fucking Christmas.”

Gawain’s saga then begins roughly a year later as he sets out on a quest to see The Green Knight again and fulfill his duty and the promise made.

“The Green Knight” can be best described as an atmospheric and moody film. Despite its small budget, the film is beautiful to look at and sets out early to make the audience feel the setting of its story both on a physical and emotional level. The cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo is at times simply breathtaking and adds to the organic nature of the film which builds on the fairy tale energy to the story. Camelot is a cold place on Christmas and so is Gawain’s peril at the prospect of living a life without a tale to tell. But often his fear of failure often overrides this desire to live more boldly. He seeks the company of a woman named Essel in a brothel who provides physical warmth for his life but he feels unable to commit to her despite clearly being in love. A microcosm of his fear at most prospects in his life.

As he sets out into the world to find his destiny with The Green Knight he is confronted constantly by the prospect of death but also just general uncomfortability. He is given weapons, armor, food, and a horse to begin his saga but is ransacked quickly rendering him mostly defenseless in his encounters throughout his journey. Unlike heroes from other stories, with “never say die” attitudes, Gawain spends most of the story in constant terror of the unknown and of any and all possible harm that may come to him. Dev Patel sells this feeling well throughout the narrative and despite there being little to no action in the movie, Gawain’s fear keeps tension high and the pace solid.

Still braver than Sir Robin, of course.

Director David Lowery and Patel do a great job of making us feel Gawain’s unease which again keeps the mostly actionless script from feeling boring. In some ways, the movie becomes somewhat of a horror story, but the terror isn’t so much ethereal or monstrous but rather Gawain’s anxiety at just the prospect of death and failure. Despite finally making a tale for himself, Gawain can’t help but feel a need to retreat in each scene to the comfort of his home in Camelot and of those who can provide it for him. The script makes us all anxious as we too feel the desire to say “Fuck this, I want to go home!”

The movie pushes these buttons all the way up to its dramatic final act that, without spoiling anything, will leave you with your jaw on the floor by its final shot. The point being that in order to truly live life, as cliché as it sounds, you got live with less fear.

Fear isn’t always a bad thing but it can be debilitating, hobble expectations, and limit your growth as a person. I’ve lived most of my life with fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of falling short of expectations and it has largely led me to play it safe most of the time. Surviving isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, there is no shame in just making it out in one piece, but to truly test yourself and to truly grow as a human being we do have to do things that terrify us at least a little bit.

I quit my job back in April, voluntarily, without giving my bosses much of a heads up but I spent that entire day lamenting what such a decision might mean for myself up to the moment I made that choice final. I was terrified of what quitting might do for my future career prospects, social endeavors, financial livelihood, plus living in America in the middle of a pandemic? Losing my healthcare. But I knew I was burnt out, at my wits end, and tired of being pushed around. I was tired of wasting my time while my life largely passed me by outside my office window. I was dreading the idea of spending even just another week at my job when I knew I could do so much more for myself if I quit.

So, I did.

Though I am a lot broker now, since that day I have definitely grown more as a person. By throwing off the shackles of an unfulfilling work cycle I was able to finally start this blog after years of saying I would, became a better martial artist in my spare time without the cloud of work-life hanging over me, been able to go out more and see friends and go places I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Hell, if I was still working at my deadend job I would not have caught the matinee screening to this really great movie in “The Green Knight.”

I faced my fears that day and after roughly five months I would say I clearly made the right decision. I won.

From what I understand, Lowery’s film takes some creative liberties with the original Arthurian poem but the message remains the same; “What are you afraid of?” Life definitely is filled with plenty of terrors but you can still control how much they scare you. You can still overcome your dread of failure, you can still find ways to be brave in front of extreme adversity. And who knows? You might find that things weren’t as horrifying as you thought they were in end if you find the courage to stop holding yourself back and simply face your fears.

With a tremendous career-defining performance by Dev Patel, “The Green Knight” is a gem of a movie that asks good questions of the nature of fear. It’s a movie that keeps you glued from start to finish and for myself hits a little too close to home in the best way.

“The Green Knight” is a good reminder that fear is valid, but we can’t let it control us. We can’t let it keep us from fulfilling our potential, from seeking out adventure and life-changing moments. We can all have tales to tell if we simply find the strength from within to conquer our anxieties. We’re all going to die someday anyway, so don’t let your life go to waste. Don’t let fear control every action you take.

Otherwise, we really will lose our heads.


4.5 out of 5

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