‘The Green Knight’ Is Sir Gawain’s Last Temptation
Love and loss mix in A24’s mesmerizing new epic
The final moments of Martin Scorcese’s controversial 1988 biblical epic based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ novel The Last Temptation of Christ reveal Satan’s final offer to Jesus, as he bleeds and suffers, nailed to the cross.
The titular last temptation is a glimpse of life as a mortal. In this vision, Jesus’ pain stops. He is allowed to marry Mary Magdalene and have children and grow old, even if his former disciples shun him. Finally, Jesus’ beloved friend Judas come to him, grief-stricken that the Son did not do what the Father needed him to do, which was sacrifice himself for the good of all men and women, now and forever. It’s only then that Jesus rejects Satan’s fantasy. He returns to the cross, where he dies for the sins of humankind.
The Last Temptation of Christ is one of Martin Scorcese’s most personal and passionate works, even if Harvey Keitel plays Judas as if he were a Brooklyn bookie and the unconventionally cast Willem Dafoe, as Jesus, looks like his costumes were found at a community theater. But that moment, when Jesus accepts his fate, still stuns me.
I was recently stunned by another movie that ends on a similar moment of grace, The Green Knight. It is director David Lowery’s otherworldly retelling of a 14th-century poem about an Arthurian Knight of the Roundtable’s quest to fulfill a supernatural bargain. It is both a hypnotic fantasy and a religious experience.
I don’t know how a movie like this is pitched to Hollywood executives, but it probably went something like this: “It’s John Boorman’s hallucinatory 1981 King Arthur classic Excalibur meets Swamp Thing, but with religious themes?”
In The Green Knight, Dev Patel plays Sir Gawain, a young man who has a lot in common with Jesus Christ — they’re both mama’s boys, for instance. They’re burdened with the knowledge of their deaths. Jesus and Gawain both enjoy the company of sex workers. And they both surrender to what must be done: Jesus must die to save humanity. That is the deal.
While on his knees before the Green Knight, Gawain is granted a vision of a future where he is king and chooses to die honestly, rather than to live an empty life that brings misery to those he loves and will love. He sacrifices himself for the good of the kingdom.
Both Gawain and Jesus meet their fates with faltering courage, the knight does beg for his life at first but so does Jesus, in the garden. The Son asks his Father to spare him the horror of crucifixion and is rebuffed.
Lowery honors his source material, an epic from a time long ago when Christianity was still new in an ancient land. The movie opens with a challenge from the Green Knight, a creaking, rustling enchanted tree with arms and legs, armor and twigs for facial hair. He walks into King Arthur’s court and issues a challenge to the brave men assembled: strike me now, and a year hence, find me in my chapel and receive the same blow in return. Gawain, young and ambitious, steps forward with his uncle King Arthur’s famous sword Excalibur and cuts the Green Knights head off. He wins but that victory comes with a price. Let that be a lesson: do not seek glory.
Twelve months later, Gawain honors the deal. His quest is no adventure. Anyone expecting sword-fights and heroic acts of chivalry from The Green Knight should not go on this journey. Gawain is robbed. He loses his way. He is easily manipulated, by ghosts and nobles. The first thing he sees when he arrives at his destination is a stone cross covered in moss. The Green Knight, a spirit of the forest and the old ways, makes a Christian chapel his home. In this corner of England, the trees still rule.
When I was a boy I was in love with Jesus. Why not? He was a young, handsome white man with long red hair who loved me, unconditionally. The Bible told me so and as far as I was concerned, the Bible was the instruction manual of the universe. The Jesus I grew up with was gentle. And kind. A few years later I would learn that the Catholic Church was, like anything run by adults, corrupt.
Some priests were predators, others close-minded bigots who thought I was stupid. I knew God didn’t talk them. Really. He didn’t talk to them because He didn’t talk to me. I prayed every night of my life until my late twenties although, to be truthful, I missed a few here and there and there were some nights when I prayed obliterated on alcohol. The last time I prayed was a few weeks before my dad died of cancer. I asked Jesus to spare my dad and he didn’t so I stopped.
Prayer is a birthday wish dressed in sacred vestments. Solemn. Holy. Machine washable. But a game. A silly thing. You think a nice thought and blow out a candle and eat cake.
Life is a melancholy quest that ends in death. Since I’ve accepted that truth I’ve started to allow myself — now that I have slightly fewer years ahead of me than behind me — moments of sentimental introspection, and it’s during such self-indulgent moments that I truly miss those brief moments of childhood when the trees talk to you when there is still a small part of you that dimly remembers the oblivion before birth, that place where life comes from. When you’re a young boy, it’s easy to imagine a man like Jesus, tender and loving. Not a parent, not a friend. But someone you love with all your heart and who loves you back, even more. A person who won’t get mad at you if you stay up late or refuse to eat your broccoli.
I remember one nun walking other young Catholics through the stations of the cross, which is just a list of the violence Jesus was subjected to for me, John DeVore. I remember feeling sick to my stomach and guilty as I was told about the scourging and the thorns and the beatings and it broke my heart, which is the point. I’ve written before how my very Baptist father was mostly accepting of the Catholicism I was raised to practice by my mother, but his religion wasn’t hung up on the gore as much as the Catholics. Not that the Baptists don’t have their own bizarre quirks but crying over the butchering of God’s only Son isn’t really one of the things they focus on.
I loved Jesus. Not the way I loved my father or my brother. He was not my family. I loved Him, even when I was learning that a baby isn’t pulled from a magical void but is grown inside a woman after she has fallen in love with a man. Men and women love each other. Men can love family but not other men. Men cannot be tender with other men. Those are the rules and eventually, I would learn those are rules that should be broken every chance you get.
And yet Jesus was intimate with his disciples. He washed their feet. Cuddled with them at night. He was kissed by Judas before being turned over to the Romans.
The men in The Green Knight are gentle with one another. Or at least, they are with Patel’s Gawain, an immature drunkard who is also quite beautiful. I have loved Patel’s work over the years, from Slumdog Millionaire to his small but memorable role in Aaron Sorkin’s laughable soap opera The Newsroom. His recent turn as the title character in The Personal History of David Copperfield, writer/director Armando Iannucci’s wildly inventive adaptation of the beloved Charles Dickens classic, was, in a word, delightful. But in The Green Knight, his eyes quiver with confusion and innocence, and passion.
The movie is also beautiful, and terrifying, like being lost in the woods or dreaming about being lost in the woods. Lowery tells a very smart, very human story that is also very mercurial and therefore occasionally frustrating. His movie shows us a world where foxes talk and androgynous giants the size of mountains slowly walk towards distant mists, maybe never to be seen or heard from again. I wonder if the Green Knight’s eventual decapitation of Gawain is the last time nature wins against man.
The Green Knight explores ideas of masculinity from the distant past. It’s not really a criticism of modern men. It’s an exploration of a poem charged with sexual energy from a time when gender norms were different, more primitive in some ways, more fluid in other ways. I’m not suggesting the fifteenth century England was a progressive paradise where women and men were equal but it was certainly a time when affection between the sexes was not as militantly enforced as now, especially by a church that was too busy absorbing pagan traditions and iconography like the Holy Roman Blob.
It was still called The Dark Ages for a reason. The 14th century was a time when hanging people from cages at crossroads until they died and decomposed was what passed as cutting-edge crime prevention. Thou shalt not committeth crimes, of any sort, cake theft or murder or whatnot, or thou shalt be tortured then left to dangle!
And while humanity has advanced technologically since then, some things don’t change. Dudes are still dummies. Gawain accepts the Green Knight’s challenge not because he is honorable, but because young men are not smart. They like to show off and goose death and make a ruckus. He only becomes a man when he accepts responsibility for his stunt.
In Green Knight, women are ambitious and men don’t do much. They revel, and war, and hunt. But it is Gawain’s mother who sets her son’s journey into motion, summoning the Green Knight who will, by the end of the movie, behead Gawain, but only after praising his bravery. She sets the trap. If his mother had not set him on this path, he may have lived an unremarkable life of courtly intoxication. Instead, her son, even dead, becomes a legend. Immortal.
Before Gawain meets his fate he arrives at a castle populated by a lord and lady, and a mysterious blindfolded crone. The lady seduces Gawain, who surrenders but not because of lust, but because she offers him a magical girdle that he had lost. A talisman that will protect him from death. The sexual act is brief, perfunctory, and she scolds him for ejaculating on the girdle. Later, as Gawain makes his escape, he is confronted by the lord who kisses him. As the lord and lady, Joel Edgerton and Alicia Vikander, are ghosts made flesh, haunting and hungry and, well, for lack of a better word, horny.
Gawain does not kiss the lord back, but he doesn’t really recoil, either. It wasn’t a kiss of betrayal, either. I thought it was a very vulnerable moment between the two. A lovesick goodbye? A desperate invitation? Two bros high-fiving with their mouths? Maybe Gawain should have stayed?