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: “The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It”

One of my few regrets from my years in law school is that, while living for three years in New Haven, I never made the trek out to Monroe, Connecticut to visit Ed and Lorraine Warren’s house. This controversial husband-and-wife duo—he a demonologist, she an alleged clairvoyant—investigated a wide variety of paranormal incidents during their long career together, leading to their cultivation of a museum of objects used in esoteric rites, including the notorious “Annabelle” doll.

Alas, in the absence of firsthand experience, I’ve been left to settle for second best—the increasingly sprawling cinematic universe of “The Conjuring,” loosely based on their cases. 2013 and 2016 marked the release of two of the finest—and interestingly enough, least grisly—horror films of the past decade. (“The Conjuring 2” is probably the most intense experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater.) Follow-up flicks—the uneven “Annabelle” trilogy and the (weaker still) spinoffs “The Nun” and “The Curse of La Llorona—were lucrative, but suffered in quality.

With “The Devil Made Me Do It”, “La Llorona” director Michael Chaves takes the reins from series architect James Wan (known for “Saw” and “Insidious”). And while this third main-series installment packs a more substantial punch than some of the other entries in the “Conjuring”canon, I’m sad to report that it’s a bit of a mess.

“The Devil Made Me Do It” begins with the brutal exorcism of eight-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). To save David’s life, family friend Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) agrees to let the demon take him instead. A few days later, with his sense-perceptions clouded by demonic influence, young Arne then goes on to kill his employer in a terrified frenzy. The Warrens (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are subsequently brought in to help him develop a “demonic possession defense” that will spare him the death penalty.

The first half hour of “The Devil Made Me Do It” is the “Conjuring” series at its best. Jump scares, monstrous claws dragged along building walls, escalating dread—it’s all here. The stage is set for a judicial showdown over the terms of engagement with the spiritual within late modernity.

But despite this setup, things don’t quite develop into the edgy courtroom thriller one would expect. Eventually, the Warrens discover that the Glatzel family was cursed by a powerful Satanist cult leader—a human adversary directing and manipulating demonic forces. The only way to stop her is to smash the altar that “grounds” her curse. And from there, things start to play out somewhat like Frank Peretti’s novel “This Present Darkness.” Demonic attacks start showing up in multiple places—at the Warrens’ house, in the deep forest, in the prison facility where Arne is kept, and so on. 

The third act, unfortunately, goes off the rails altogether. In seeking to deliver a big baroque climax that outdoes its predecessors, “The Devil Made Me Do It” swaps nail-chewing terror for monster-of-the-week spectacle. If you’ve seen a few episodes of “Supernatural,” you know what you’re in for.

I may be one of the last people who thinks this, but I’ve always thought that Christian-based supernatural horror films are strongest when they proceed with a distinct theological seriousness. In this particular context, a film ought to reflect a Catholic understanding of evil as not simply grotesquerie, but rather that which is oriented toward nonbeing, the utter disordering and degradation of the good. The first “Conjuring,” unfortunately, suffered from a certain ontological ambiguity surrounding the central antagonist: is it a witch’s ghost or a demon? The second was far better, pitting the Warrens against a single monstrous demon driven from its perch and seeking revenge (Matt. 12:43–45, anyone?) while traveling under the form of a skeletal nun. The demonic forces in this third installment, sadly, are pretty bog-standard monsters, and never come close to the sheer nastiness of those in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” or even “The Conjuring 2.” Untethered from a genuine attempt to understand why demons do what they do, what it means to be alienated from God and seeking to drag down others into that same abyss, an aesthetic of black candles and animal skulls is just cheesy pop-Satanism.

That’s not the only area, unfortunately, where this movie’s lack of serious spiritual interest proves to be a problem.

(Spoiler alert)

Early on, Ed and Lorraine swing by the house of a retired priest (John Noble) with an expertise in Satanic cults. As it so happens, this priest hasn’t destroyed all the occult objects he retrieved from evil rites; instead he’s locked them up in his basement, comparing it to “taking guns off the streets.” Now if you’re anything like me, this already sets your horror movie Spidey-sense tingling. But there’s a problem with this inference: Lorraine’s visions of the cult leader show a female antagonist.

There’s indeed a connection, though. Eventually we come to learn that the cultist is the priest’s illegitimate daughter, who had to be hidden from the Church and who developed an unhealthy interest in her father’s cult-busting work. This “revelation,” such as it is, is a profoundly unsatisfying one. We never learn why the daughter is targeting families for destruction, or what exactly she gains from cursing others. We know virtually nothing about her at all. As a result, the climax feels rather like learning in the last few pages of a mystery novel that the murderer was really “Cousin Bert,” who lives 100 miles away and whom nobody has ever heard of.

The logical answer to this screenwriting problem, I think, rests in a more daring narrative move: what if the cult-smashing priest was actually female from the start? What if, as a young woman, she experienced a call of God to the ministry, but was barred from ordination because of her sex—and, with no other perceived recourse, chose to live the life of a man instead? Might not such a figure, over time, grow resentful over being forced to live such an all-consuming lie? Might she not gravitate toward powers and principalities that would not demand such renunciation? On this view, Lorraine’s visions of a female cultist are impressions that pick up the priest’s own self-image beneath the layered deception—the ontological truth of her, so to speak.

Something like this, I think, better draws together the story’s narrative threads and foregrounds some genuinely provocative theological issues. Not to mention, it’s terrifying stuff: what could possibly be more frightening than a priest gone over to the “dark side”? Who could possibly be trusted in such a world?

(End spoilers)

Despite all these criticisms, I did enjoy this movie. The production values are top-notch, and for those who wish to look, there’s a great deal of interesting thematic material here if one’s willing to draw it to the surface. As a friend pointed out to me, there’s a sense in which this movie is built around the idea of marriage as a sacrament. If that argument holds, there’s a fascinating parallel here to the way in which “La Llorona” and “The Nun” hinge on Baptism and the Eucharist, respectively. For fans of the genre, it’s worth a watch on HBO Max, even if it doesn’t hit the heights of its predecessors.

There’s vastly more I could say about “The Devil Made Me Do It,” but I’ll just close with this. The night after I watched “The Conjuring 2,” I had nightmares of looming demon-nuns, waking up in a cold sweat and peering into spots of shadow in my room, all despite myself. The night after I watched “The Devil Made Me Do It,” I slept like a baby. 

“Conjuring” series fans, the choice is yours.

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Posted by on June 7, 2021 in Thrillers

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