It's missing the point, I know, but the question I feel compelled to start with is: did we need a revisionist version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? The 14th Century Middle English poem is a timeless favorite of medieval literature buffs, but how many of us can there possibly be? Certainly not enough for there to be a burning need for a film to look at the social and moral norms on display in the poem, and say "this actually seems pretty busted and wrong-headed, and it's definitely worth challenging, even subverting these conventions". Conventions that are of interest to an incredibly small number of 21st Century humans.

Nonetheless, we have our revisionist take now with writer-director David Lowery's The Green Knight, and I hope it's not merely fanboyish outrage that he changed things I didn't want him to change that has caused me to bounce off the film so hard. But I concede that I am merely human. Without going into details, because they would bunch up all around the ending, I will say that Lowery's Green Knight is making literally the exact opposite of the point that the unidentified "Gawain Poet" was making in the initial story.* And this causes actual problems, since the bones of the film are still the bones of the poem, and those bones were meant to support some entirely different muscles and flesh than Lowery is interesting in providing. So the result is, at the end of its terribly long 130 minutes, the film has reached a climax that feels very "wait, that's it?" after everything that has gone before.

Everything that has gone before hinges on Gawain (Dev Patel), the dissolute nephew of King Arthur (Sean Harris, in maximum "hostile whispering" mode), becomes the only man willing to meet the challenge of a peculiar tree-man-creature who shows up at the king's court one Christmas Day. This being, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson, plus lots of CGI), offers a strange bargain: any knight that can land a blow on him will win his magical axe, but must receive the same blow in return in one year. Gawain, not even a knight, but merely a disappointment to everyone who knows him, takes up the challenge, beheading the knight and watching in amazed terror as the body picks up the head, laughing, and walks away. Almost all of a year later, Gawain is maybe less dissolute (it appears that he's spent most of the time sulking), but still a disappointment, and the king basically has to throw him out of the court to make good on his bargain. Cue a journey through a foggy, mystical England of the strange and otherworldly, as Gawain has many encounters with forces that exist beyond his comprehension.

Even by the time the quest starts, The Green Knight has shown some fairly stark differences from the poem, including a substantial big of initially unexplained mysticism involving his mother (Sarita Choudhury), whose distance from the court and magical rituals point towards a neo-pagan sort of figure, connected to something deep within the earth and nature. And that's going to prove to be one of the film's foremost obsessions, presented explicitly in a long monologue by a mysterious Lady (Alicia Vikander, in the second of two roles she plays) in a mysterious castle, where she describes a post-human vision of the Green of the natural world laying waste to the violence and shallow concerns of men such as Gawain. But it's also implicit in damn near the entire film, which is full of one long take of another in which Lowery and cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo look with cowed amazement at the vistas they've arrived at, and the vistas being sweetened with some CGI to give them a bigger feeling of mythic weight. It is very much a film about feeling smaller than nature, which presents itself as something indescribable and unknowable and almost imperceptible in some ways, with low contrast and diffusion and fog all combining to create the impression of a world simultaneously boundless and claustrophobic.

This isn't new material for Lowery, or Palermo (they've collaborated once before, on 2017's A Ghost Story, which is the most important reference point for this movie in Lowery's career), which ends up benefiting the film: The Green Knight, if it is anything at all, is one of the most drop-dead gorgeous American films in years. It knows it, too, which is perhaps a bit annoying: there's a manicured quality to the images that makes it too easy to feel the presence of an unseen crew watching as Patel effortlessly hits all of his marks - his performance is, I would say, about as good as the conception of the character allows it to be, so I don't at all mean to put it on him that I was never entirely able to forget that I was watching an actor maneuvering through compositions, not a callow, nervous, even cowardly young knight in the dangerous wastelands of medieval England. But they are exquisite compositions, capturing all the misty, atmospheric weight of the film's universe, one drenched in a feeling of preordained doom, an endless march towards oblivion made rattling and uncomfortable by Daniel Hart's polyglot musical score, which ranges from percussive modernism to tuneless, timeless humming.

So there's plenty of style, at least. But there's precious little else, including anything to hook that style onto, emotionally or intellectually or narratively. Which gets back to the central problem: this story has a spine meant to tell one sort of tale of honorable behavior and the cost of being moral, but the filmmakers want to use it to tell a much different tale, with modern pop-psychology (it's hard to reduce anything this purposefully rambling to a single point, but "a guy who's neurotic about sex learns to chill out" is certainly a big part of it) tied in with an awestruck exploration of the cosmos that feels very much of a piece with the second half of A Ghost Story. And the second half of A Ghost Story was and remains my least-favorite thing in Lowery's career, so watching him return to that mode is a bit of a drag.

When it grounds itself, The Green Knight has some wonderful sequences - basically any scene with Joel Edgerton (as the mysterious Lord of the aforementioned mysterious castel) in it feels purposeful and tied to specific ideas in ways that basically every scene without Joel Edgerton doesn't; and while the climax has place in this story whatsoever, as it has existed for centuries or as Lowery has been telling it up to that point, it's executed with verve and some really nifty editing. There's definitely something here; it's too certain about what it's doing, even when what it's doing is strewing about some new pieces of opaque symbolism, not to feel that it comes from a genuine vision. But I can't make myself care about that vision, and the way it reduces Gawain and Patel's performance to a series of detachable ideas about selfishness, fear, and masculinity orbiting around a deliberately undefined core makes it hard to watch as an adventure about a specific character. It's a movie all about ideas, but it can't make those ideas cohere to the framework of a medieval romance, and so they just seem to float away and dissolve - everything about the film's technique and tone are monumental and heavy, which makes all the more disappointing that it ends up feeling mostly insubstantial as anything other than a highlight real of beautiful landscape photography.

*Or, anyway, the point of it as I read it - one of the most notable characteristics of the poem is its philosophical opacity. But at any rate, I don't think you could possibly fit this film's ideas into any reading of the poem, no matter how expansive.