With Hollywood blockbusters having gone the way of superheroes and sci-fi, there’s been a real lack of high fantasy lately. Something needs to fill the hole that Game of Thrones left after its sixth and final season ended. No wonder there’s so much excitement for The Green Knight. For fans of the genre, it marks a glorious return to Arthurian legend—and it’s handled by A24 instead of Warner Bros this time, so there’s no risk of the studio trying to turn it into a franchise (may you remain forgotten, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword).

For fans of the indie scene, The Green Knight also marks the return of writer/director David Lowery, one of the U.S.’ most exciting new auteurs. His style was distinctive straight out the gate—something like the spirited, personal surrealism of Weerasethakul tempered by the peculiar softness of Assayas. The Green Knight feels like that too, which is to say that it’s not your typical fantasy movie. It’s a Lowery project filtered through the lens of medieval legend.

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The legend in question is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a 14th-century epic about King Arthur’s nephew. Eager to prove himself to the knights of the round table, Gawain accepts a Christmastime challenge from The Green Knight, a hulking, humanoid creature that looks like it ripped itself from a tree trunk. The challenge is simple: Gawain gets to take a single swing at the Knight, and if the Knight dies, Gawain wins his axe. If the Knight survives the blow, however, Gawain must rendezvous with the Knight next Christmas to receive the exact same blow in return. Gawain beheads the Knight, but the creature simply rises, picks up its head, and tells Gawain to be there one year hence.

The story then skips forward to the days leading up to that appointment. Gawain isn’t keen on losing his head (probably because he’s a dead ringer for Dev Patel), but a nagging sense of honor compels him to journey to The Green Chapel and keep up his end of the bargain. Even before Gawain departs from Camelot, Lowery’s talent as a visual artist is overpowering. The Green Knight comes close to an endless series of perfect compositions. Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Palermo ensure that every other shot is striking—sitting through the film is akin to a measured pace through an art museum. The production design is stagey, yet otherworldly, like the face of a campfire orator warped by the flames. The lighting design is especially impressive. What the crew pulls off with shadow, light, smoke, and mist should be inspiring to art connoisseurs and aspiring filmmakers alike.

But the film can’t quite achieve the feeling of a world unknown. The medieval poem preserves a sense of wonder: to 14th-century readers, the images described were like nothing they’d ever imagined; to modern readers, the ancient prose intimates a way of thinking entirely lost to time. The Green Knight, for all its singular beauty, feels conspicuously 21st century. Maybe it’s the pristine clarity of the deep-focus shots—a failure to obscure the presence of modern technology. Maybe it’s the slow, deliberate pans that remind us a hand is moving a camera somewhere, a technique that worked for Roma because it was the director’s exploration of his own memory, but breaks the suspension of disbelief in a high fantasy setting. To be clear, these aren’t big problems—just postulation as to why this clever, gorgeous epic didn’t fully connect.

It’s likely no fault of the screenplay. Lowery keeps the allegorical possibilities of the legend wide open—scholars are still debating whether the story is pro-Christian and anti-pagan or the complete opposite—while filling the space up with themes that have pervaded his work. The film’s last third, which deviates heavily from the original poem, is a thematic recapitulation of Lowery’s A Ghost Story: a meditation on the eventual decay of all things, told through the poem’s dichotomy between man’s accomplishments and the natural world. Lowery’s fixation on mortality fits The Green Knight well, unearthing an old secret from a fading story—roots always run deeper into the ground than ink does into the page.

★★★★½   (4.5/5)