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Movie Review: “The Green Knight”

As a longtime appreciator of Arthurian lore, I’ve contemplated more than once the challenges facing anyone who would try their hand at adaptation. An artist or filmmaker must attempt to hold together not one, but two, dialectical pairs: the tension between paganism and Christianity, and the transition from the Roman to the medieval age. Failure to strike the proper aesthetic balance inevitably leads to an unsatisfying result. (Just think of Guy Ritchie’s catastrophic “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.”)

David Lowery’s eerie, slow-burning “The Green Knight” delivers on this unified vision. No doubt this take on the classic tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight won’t be to all viewers’ taste, but those willing to fall under Lowery’s spell will find themselves drawn into a mesmerizing world that—to its tremendous credit—never attempts to demythologize or seriously subvert its subject matter.

Readers familiar with the original poem—perhaps most memorably translated by J.R.R. Tolkien—will find all the standard story beats present here. Young Sir Gawain (Dev Patel), while feasting with the Knights of the Round Table on Christmas Day, is abruptly confronted by an inhuman Green Knight, who challenges him to a game: deliver a single blow, and then travel to the Green Knight’s abode a year leader to be repaid in kind, as a gesture of reciprocity. The arrogant Gawain promptly beheads the stranger, only to learn too late that the Knight cannot be so defeated. Laughing all the while, the mighty creature departs, reminding Gawain before leaving that he must present himself the next Christmas to receive the same stroke delivered back to him. Gawain’s days, in short, are numbered.

Honor prevails: Gawain leaves the arms of his lover Essel (Alicia Vikander) and sets out on a quest across England’s fog-shrouded moors, confronting bandits and saints and giants in the process. At the end of his journey lies the Green Chapel where his fate will be decided—along with an enigmatic husband and wife who seem strangely familiar.

(Mild spoilers for the movie ahead, though these don’t really count if you’ve read the poem.)

Lowery’s last film, the sad little metaphysical romantic drama “A Ghost Story” (sorry for the four adjectives, but they’re all apposite) concluded with an extended flash-forward, drawing on the motif of the “eternal return” to demonstrate that, after an infinite span of time, all events inevitably repeat themselves. Here, Lowery uses a similar technique to express a fundamentally different theme: the possibility of alternative futures, rather than of cosmic repetition. In the instants before the Green Knight’s axe descends on his neck, Lowery’s Gawain imagines all those those things that would happen if he simply fled the chapel and returned home: succeeding Arthur on the throne, consolidating power by pushing aside his loved ones, and finally witnessing the fall of Camelot in a storm of blood and fire. And Gawain, crucially, rejects that path, remaining resolute as the Green Knight towers over him. To live dishonorably is, in short, no proper life at all.

And then the movie ends, moments after the Green Knight rumbles “off with your head.”

Those familiar with the poem know what happens next: the Green Knight turns out to be the lord of the nearby manor, who devised the whole experiment as a test of Gawain’s moral mettle. But Lowery leaves the matter unresolved, ambiguous—a kind of Pascal’s Wager for the knights’ code of chivalry. Gawain’s choice is vindicated not because of its good outcome, but because of its intrinsic virtue.

This is not a stylistic choice that many—even most—viewers will understand or appreciate. (Almost everyone in my theater was completely dumbfounded by this conclusion, and I heard a lot of grumbling on the way out.) And yet it brings to the surface an essential truth of life: all of us, at least on the level of the immanent, must make moral decisions against a backdrop of profound uncertainty. We do not know in advance what the decisions we make will lead to, or whether we ourselves will survive the process—but part of being a moral agent as such is the need to make such choices nevertheless. The narrative structure of medieval romance leads the reader of the poem to presume that all things will ultimately work out, and thereby to impute that awareness to the story’s characters—but “here below” in the real world, and so too in Lowery’s adaptation, the future is experienced as clouded and doubtful.

In so framing Gawain’s tale, Lowery manages to make this old tale “relevant” in a genuinely existential way, tapping into eternal truths rather than drenching his story in biting irony or sociological critique. It is this element, I think, that will make “The Green Knight” endure for years to come, when many other Arthur adaptations are long forgotten. There is a reason this particular legend has persisted over the centuries, through countless social upheavals and ideological revolutions, and Lowery’s film successfully channels that ethos.

Those unwilling to sink deeply into this film’s lush tapestry won’t find much to like here (this is not a film, for instance, that can be watched with one eye on one’s phone)—but more patient viewers will find themselves richly rewarded.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2021 in Fantasy

 

Movie Review: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”

Ever since I was old enough to really care about movies, I’ve had a conflicted relationship with Zack Snyder’s work. As a teenager and early twentysomething, I reveled in the video game-influenced aesthetics of “300” and “Watchmen” and “Sucker Punch,” from the macho screenwriting to the slo-mo eruptions of fire and blood. Something changed, though, with 2013’s “Man of Steel,” which I described at the time as “rather like being smashed over the head with a boom box on full blast.” Snyder’s “gritty” take on the Superman mythos was a cacophonous, punishing experience, one almost entirely devoid of the joy and heroism I associated with the character. And 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”—which featured an even glummer Superman alongside a Batman who readily killed his enemies—was an even lower point.

I’ve always justified my opinion of Snyder’s work, at least to myself, on principally philosophical grounds. Technically proficient as they are, pervasive throughout Snyder’s films is what seems to be a sense of obeisance before raw power—a leering, even Nietzschean admiration for sheer destructive vitality. Snyder’s “heroes” are alien and inaccessible demigods, capable of reducing city blocks to ash but incapable of experiencing any recognizably human sentiments or motivations.  “Tonight we dine in hell!” bellows Snyder’s Leonidas in “300,” and it’s difficult not to think that’s what Snyder himself prefers to anything contemplative or beatific.

But time makes fools of us all, and as the years have passed, I’ve come to think that perhaps it was me who was missing something, at least where Snyder’s most ambitious and audacious work was concerned. “Batman v Superman”—particularly its much-improved extended edition—has kept drawing me back over the years despite myself. And in due course, I’ve come to understand the film as a case study of the way, under modernity, that the presence of the truly divine (Superman) would be experienced. From a standpoint that takes the contemporary conditions of life as unquestionable, the inbreaking of the divine is a dangerous and uncontrollable wildcard, a source of alien or transcendent authority whose existence necessarily relativizes and destabilizes every conceivable human endeavor, and for that reason it must be extinguished. In short, if the world is to go on as it has, it needs a kind of Pontius Pilate.

Or perhaps, at least, a Tower of Babel. Enter Batman, the perfect specimen of finite humanity who has attained the peak of physical and financial perfection, and now seeks to challenge a god. The stakes of the fight between Batman and Superman are thus not simply the stuff of comic books, but something existential. In coming to blows with the Kryptonian intruder from beyond, Batman seeks to “mount up” to divinity himself; Superman, his foil, epitomizes the descent of the divine to a suffering humanity (a contrast Snyder visually evokes in a haunting montage sequence). On this reading, the Man of Steel’s much-maligned cry of “Martha!”—which leads an angry Batman to suddenly realize the kinship between himself and Superman—goes from stupid to profound: it is the identification of a principle of analogy between the two heroes. Superman, for all his godlikeness, is still in some sense recognizably human, capable of experiencing the condition of childlikeness in the presence of one’s mother. This is all very heady theological stuff, far more than I’d ever given Snyder credit for, and it makes the film’s explicitly Christian imagery (Superman dying in a Pietà pose after taking a spear wound to the chest and saving the world?) feel much more grounded and appropriate.

And that, at bottom, is why I was so excited when “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” finally made its debut on HBO Max. The clumsily titled flick is Snyder’s much-anticipated attempt to rehabilitate 2017’s “Justice League”—a film that, following the suicide of Snyder’s daughter and his departure from the project, ended up being recut and substantially reshot by “Avengers” director Joss Whedon. The result was a $300 million mess, and not even the entertaining kind. Rushed, sloppy, and tonally inconsistent, it was a decidedly bathetic culmination of the DC Cinematic Universe. But what if Snyder had been given free rein to realize his original vision, without studio interference? That is the question “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” aims to permanently resolve.

And resolve it it does, in a sprawling four-hour extravaganza that redefines the scope of what a “director’s cut” can be.

Story-wise, Snyder’s new version hits roughly the same plot points as the original film, though the overwhelming majority of the actual footage is new. Picking up several months after the death of Superman (Henry Cavill) at the hands of the misbegotten monster Doomsday, most of the film’s first half follows Batman (Ben Affleck) as he races to assemble a team of “metahumans” to stop a coming invasion. Superman’s dying cry has, quite literally, torn the veil between worlds; out of the breach charges the seemingly indestructible alien warrior Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) and his army of flying Parademons. Steppenwolf, it so happens, is a disgraced lieutenant of the cosmic warlord Darkseid, who’s hellbent on conquering Earth after it resisted his invasion long ago. To get back in Darkseid’s good graces, Steppenwolf must reclaim the three “Mother Boxes”—components of a planet-purging weapon that must be united and synchronized in order to trigger—from Earth’s three tribes: the humans, the Amazons, and the Atlanteans. To be sure, this is densely mythological, even Tolkienesque stuff, but the film’s lengthy runtime gives it room to develop. While the Mother Boxes felt like half-baked MacGuffins in the original flick, here they serve a real purpose, and Steppenwolf comes off less as a B-list stopgap villain and more as a harbinger of worse things to come.

As the film plays out, Wayne eventually cobbles together a team consisting of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), and the Flash (Ezra Miller). Of the five, it’s Cyborg who gets the most development to his backstory: following a tragic car accident, he is condemned by his scientist father to a kind of half-life inside a metal exoskeleton, blessed with astonishing powers but permanently alienated from the rest of humanity. And (at the risk of spoiling a four-year-old movie) then there’s Superman himself, this time sporting a sleek black suit but no less heroic for it.

Is four hours a lengthy runtime for a superhero movie? You bet. But even when the pacing lags a bit—as one would expect—Snyder uses that time to develop his characters rather than jam in more action sequences, which keeps the film from feeling overwhelming. (The major fight scenes are extended in length, but I think the Snyder Cut actually may have fewer of them in numerical terms.) And the visuals are similarly improved this time around: Snyder has taken the opportunity (plus a $70 million check from Warner Brothers) to clean up some of the original movie’s janky CGI, as well as dialed back the aesthetically unpleasing red glow that dominated the original cut’s climax. Even at the height of its exposition dumping, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is always pretty to look at.

I’d be remiss in my critical duties if I didn’t note that the Snyder Cut is backed by a thundering, all-new score by Tom Holkenborg (d/b/a Junkie XL) that fits the mood far, far better than Danny Elfman’s original approach.  I don’t know who decided that character leitmotifs were out of fashion, but I’ve missed them: this new score deploys the instantly recognizable Superman and Wonder Woman themes, among others, for maximum effect. And this means that as the film’s climactic battle rages, its emotional beats feel earned, grounded in the stories of characters we’ve seen across numerous prior movies.

But none of this is why I was so interested in seeing Snyder’s remake in the first place.

Like its predecessors, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is not without a distinctly religious dimension. Most notably, Bruce Wayne is a changed man since the events of “Batman v Superman.” Something about Superman’s sacrifice has radically transformed how he understands both himself and his place in the cosmos. And as it becomes clear that the nascent Justice League must place its hope in Superman’s potential resurrection, Wayne explicitly calls this shift what it is: for him, it is the end of “reason” and the beginning of faith. Gone is the brutal, jaded Dark Knight training for war against the divine and donning thick battle armor. Instead, here is a Batman who accepts his human limitations and acknowledges the necessity of a more profound power from beyond.

The cleverest allusion to this theme is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment entirely absent from Whedon’s film. As the movie wraps up, Bruce Wayne decides to establish the first physical headquarters of the Justice League, featuring six chairs and “room for more.” “God help us,” murmurs Alfred (Jeremy Irons). It’s a half-second, almost throwaway line, but it captures something important about Snyder’s films: they’re telling a story that, at some level, is about the descent of God to human beings. Whether or not they’re entirely successful at that goal is a separate question; maybe it’s enough that these movies want to be theological and metaphysical epics, rather than just episodic throwaway entertainment. That’s praiseworthy enough in its own right.

When all’s said and done, perhaps the worst thing about “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is how extensively it arranges the pieces for an apocalyptic follow-up film we may never get to see. The League, of course, must eventually cross paths with Darkseid himself, with the fate of the world on the line—and if Snyder’s comments about the potential sequel(s) are to be believed, the DC endgame would’ve been spectacular indeed.

As far as I’m concerned, let’s do this thing. #RestoreTheSnyderVerse.

 
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Posted by on March 19, 2021 in Fantasy

 
 
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