We seem to be at a crossroads of what audiences want our entertainment to represent. Due to the proliferation of streaming, and the decline of theater-going frequency, studios have hitched their wagon to a more “efficient” model – produce less theater-bound films, but make almost all of the big-budget, effects-driven cash cows. It, in turn, has made “real movies” (read: dramas centered around issues concerning the human experience and made to emphasize acting, dialogue, editing, and cinematography over visual effects) less profitable and more likely to be swallowed up in noisy streaming catalogs.
Much of this discourse and fear that cinema is dying, make no mistake, is about money. Yes, directors and actors want their art form to thrive, but they also want to get paid like they’ve always been paid. But that’s not going to happen if the only place anyone ever sees their movie is Amazon Prime. Critics, while not totally uninterested in blockbuster fare, seem to want the type of movies they grew up caring about continue to be a dominating force in film culture and discussion.
So what the hell does any of this have to do with The Green Knight, David Lowery’s fantasy epic, an adaptation of an acclaimed short story, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, set within the King Arthur universe? Well, the movie’s polarizing reception seems to be one of the latest additions in the line of sands drawn between critics and audiences. Critics lauded it, while moviegoers didn’t know what to make of it.
Our story follows Gawain (Dev Patel), the nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris), as he embarks on a trek that will test his character. When we’re first introduced to him, we meet a promiscuous slacker who spends his days at brothels rather than improving his mind or body. If Gawain was born a few centuries later, he’d be starring opposite Seth Rogan in a Judd Apatow production. When the King asks him to recount some great adventures, Gawain solemnly disappoints the King by stating, “I have none to tell.” Gawain is a man who yearns for adventure, for purpose, but he has no great conflict to solve.
Then, on Christmas night, a mythical knight crashes the party attended by King Arthur’s court. The knight offers to play a game, one in which will test the bravery of whichever man has the courage to take the knight up on the offer. Gawain, motivated to do something with his life, accepts the challenge, and his actions that night help to brand him as a hero in his community, one whom is the subject of tall tales and retellings of that faithful Christmas night. But Gawain knows, per the agreement of the game, that his penance owed to the knight is coming, and it’s a sacrifice that may lead to Gawain’s demise.
Lowery’s film aims to be majestic, illuminating it’s well worn story with artful imagery. To the movie’s credit, the cinematography is sublime, utilizing color conservatively to create contrast with the earthly surroundings. The colorful wardrobes, as utilized by costume designer Malgosia Turzanska, have their brightness take center stage, as DOP Andrew Droz Palermo perfectly frames these tranquil characters. But while The Green Knight may look great, does the story prove to be worth telling?
As Gawain prepares to go on the journey that will change his life, his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) questions his motives. “Is it wrong to want greatness for you?” he levies at her. She retorts “Why greatness? Why is goodness not enough?” This is essentially the heart of Gawain’s dilemma, and perhaps an under-discussed aspect of heroic myth-making in general. Why do so many men aspire to be great, but not good? History is full of men, from war generals to world leaders, to comptemporary athletes and entertainers who are celebrated more for their accomplishments than their virtues. Sometimes this dynamic is low stakes, such as the abrasive personalities boasted by icons like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady, whose jobs require “tough love” in order to inspire those around them.
In more tragic circumstances, there are figures such as Woody Allen and Bill Cosby, whose great work must now be compartmentalized in popular culture in order to account for their various transgressions. It all relates to a conflation that persisted too long in culture, one in which the great talent must also be, in some way, a great person. Now, we no longer consider this to be the case, as too often we’ve discovered the hero on the outside is masking a flawed human being on the inside. Essel is wise enough to identify the difference between great and good, and she challenges Gawain to recognize the same.
The Green Knight is an updated retelling of the tragic hero, which at one time was the most popular form of mythical storytelling. In modern times, the “Hero’s Journey” sits atop that hierarchy, and The Green Knight’s subversive screenplay flies in the face of Joseph Campbell’s famous formula. The film constantly introduces obstacles and characters, who in a blockbuster film would act as foes for the protagonist to defeat. But Gawain isn’t here to look glamorous, he is here to take his lumps and to learn from it. The tragic hero was always about the lessons audiences can discern from someone’s fall from grace, but do modern audiences have an appetite for that type of storytelling in cinema?
The film didn’t really resonate with audiences over the summer. It was well reviewed, but even some of that praise centered more around the movie’s acting and technical achievements, rather than how the movie made them feel. In that, lies much of the disconnect between what movies are popular and what are “well made”, and it seems that those two types of films are continuously diverging in style. The tepid audience response towards The Green Knight should be expected – its literary source material represents an era of writing that acts counterintuitive to modern tastes. Hell, when some of the components of the tragic hero made a return to the mainstream and were brought to the Star Wars franchise, in the form of The Last Jedi (2017), a large portion of the audience loudly rejected it. Now, there’s some context surrounding that example, but the point remains that audiences want to see heroes triumph, or die in a blaze of glory, rather than go on a seemingly unglamorous quest of self discovery and growth.
Gawain is the textbook tragic hero. Born into nobility, his privilege has abetted blind spots in his worldview, causing the fatal flaw that will motivate his error in judgment. He desires the glory of heroism, but heroism requires conflict, and this is a man that has never experienced conflict in his life, and the movie is about how ill-prepared he is for it. He’s so pampered, he even gets mugged when he ends up going to a “bad neighborhood.” He’s not too dissimilar from a person who’s been fed nothing but stories that affirms that a man must conquer the world, only for the world to slap him across the face when he exits his comfort zone.
Thus, this type of storytelling is a required taste for audiences because they they don’t want to see themselves in these stories. There’s no Neo or Luke Skywalker here for audiences to live vicariously through. Even in a film like Joker (2019), which is explicitly about a person who commits terrible acts, the movie ends with the bad guy becoming the hero of his own story, and to the many people he inspires (reminder that the movie made over $1 billion worldwide). Therefore, The Green Knight must settle for a shrinking corner of pop culture attention, one that doesn’t truly seem to see the value in the story Lowery wants to tell. Yes, there’s room in the world for the Free Guys, the Jokers, and the multidimensional Spider-Men. But perhaps not all entertainment needs to tell us we’re the hero – because we’re often not. Stories that examine our failures are just as important. In failing to be great, we can understand the value of being good.