Sunday, August 29, 2021

Urban Legend: CANDYMAN

Nia DaCosta’s Candyman movie takes the 1992 original’s subtext and flattens into the surface text. Gone are the creeping insinuations and curling undertow of a ghost story about a lynched Black man lurking as an urban legend in a Chicago housing project. (Say his name five times and he’ll haunt you, drive you mad, or maybe slaughter you with his hook-hand.) The new film just states flat out that it’s all about the lingering aftereffects of racism’s traumas, and the ongoing wound-prodding the constant reminders and recapitulations of them with which we live are. What the earlier film allowed to bubble up from the depths of its horrors, this new one uses as dialogue to be repeated over and over as the didactic thematic design of an otherwise simple slasher trajectory in which all of the character start alive and most end up dead. It opens with a painter (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) and his gallerist girlfriend (Teyonah Parris) moving into a fancy new apartment in the recently gentrified neighborhood that was the housing projects where the first film took place. There’s a discussion about the ethics of such a move, and some gentle ribbing from the woman’s realtor brother (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who retells the story of a grad student (Virginia Madsen) who lost her mind investigating the Candyman there three decades earlier. (Astute viewers might quickly piece together the movie’s other Big Connection to its inspiration well before the surprise is sprung.) Intrigued, the boyfriend ends up using the story as material for his upcoming art show, sending him spiraling into artistic obsession that lets the Candyman back into the world. I liked his first idea: a mirror that opens onto paintings of lynchings. He calls it "Say My Name," a doubled reference to the activist urgency of remembering victims of police brutality and the lore of the Candyman. That’s the sort of mirroring where the picture’s at its best.

But then the movie is going about making its points flatly and obviously. Even as DaCosta films each scene with artful intent and striking images—I most appreciated Lotte Reiniger-style silhouette animation used to dramatize supernatural events in flashbacks, and establishing shots of upside-down Chicago streets, especially eerie when the tops of the distinctive Marina City towers plunge downwards into an overcast sky—the script undercuts them with declarative and repetitive plot explanations and thematic expostulation. The cast’s charisma—I didn’t even mention the great Colman Domingo as one of the few selling a flimsy supporting role—nearly carries it anyway, but it’s an uphill battle. The film’s politics are admirable—as is its craft—but the story stumbles. Its supporting cast is there to state the themes, provide exposition, and (usually) die. (Worst has to be a smarmy art guy or a sniffy critic, both drawn in such obvious villainy you’re just itching for comeuppance until their deaths are doled out with strange restraint.) Most disappointingly, some of the late reveals muddle its message, and on a scene-by-scene level the scares never quite hit. Elsewhere some curious gaps of logic open up. Cuts to black obscure some holes, while off-screen dialogue papers over others. The movie is full of the sort of things that might not bother me if it was otherwise working, but when my investment is slowly leaking away, it’s all I can focus on. Interesting how the truly great horror movies are simply unreproducible regardless of how many sequels try. Somehow the original is scarier, and more effectively topical, than the new one, no matter how insistent it is about contemporary concerns. It’s a good effort, but a dissatisfying result.

Friday, August 27, 2021

Game Theory: FREE GUY

Free Guy is nakedly manipulative nonsense pop filmmaking—but it works on its own terms. It helps that it’s not exactly the movie it appears to be at first. The picture opens in a video game, a combination of Fortnite and Grand Theft Auto in which we set our scene. Guy (Ryan Reynolds) tells us the rules. The sunglass wearers airdrop in to cause mayhem: carjackings, robberies, assassinations, and so on. They’re the players. Guy doesn’t know that. He’s just a Non-Player Character, a slave to the routine of his programming. One day he sees a pretty player (Jodie Comer) and falls in love. He has to know her. Along the way, he’ll learn he’s in a video game and tries to take control of his own destiny, code be damned. The problem here strikes me as the difficulty in caring about a character in a game. Remember when critics used to call bad CG spectacles “like watching someone else playing a video game?” That fell by the wayside lately, maybe because so many climaxes play that way, and maybe because Twitch and like have improbably proved a popular pastime among the younger crowd. Still, watching this phony world it is impossible to invest in the unreality. The concussive needle drops, busy heads-up displays, and loud gunfire have all the weight and impact of so many pixels. Then there’s Reynolds himself, who plays the guy like a human version of Emmett from The Lego Movie (down to the love of brand-nameless coffee) with his own particular brand of terminal insincerity melded to saccharine sentimentality. (What a strange blend of tones he’s been hawking in every role since Deadpool.) Luckily the movie uses this a jumping off point of an actual human story, turning its broad video game spoofery—with some fine nods toward violent games’ sociopathy and shallowness—into something a little more real.

I found myself relaxing into the movie’s artificial charms when it pretty early on reveals what it’s actually getting up to. It turns out Comer is, in real life, a coder who thinks the bestselling game’s designer (Taika Waititi) stole the work she and her partner (Joe Keery) did and used it as the basis of the open world software that made him rich. So she’s become a power player in hopes of uncovering proof for a lawsuit. Her unexpected realization? Her A.I. ideas might be what woke Guy from his routine. So the fake world is given some unexpected stakes—and it’s worth enjoying the lark when it might end up in actual real world consequences. There’s even some slight dancing around some Star Trek ethics of being, with the NPCs in the servers slowly dawning to their little riff on the allegory of the cave. (The movie is the junior high brain teaser to The Matrix’s grad school seminar.) The light gloss of corporate espionage cuts well against the empty quips on Reynolds’ side, and goes one step further into a secret (and only a little strained) rom-com buried under layers of genre elements. No matter how strange Reynolds is playing a proxy love interest for a totally predictable flesh-and-blood programmer, it somehow lands the emotional arc for Comer with some agreeable satisfaction.

Director Shawn Levy is nothing if not a consummate professional. He’s capable of sturdy big budget studio mechanics in ways we take for granted sometimes because he makes it look easy. With the likes of ensemble family comedy Cheaper by the Dozen and robot boxing drama Real Steel—two surprisingly satisfying efforts for which I have lingering affection—he’s proved he knows his way around hitting the right rousing beats with clean, legible throughlines and visual cohesion. There can be a charm to watching an oversized smooth shiny object of a big screen experience. Here Levy pushes a little too hard on pandering referentiality—does the ending really need two back-to-back overt references to its corporate sibling’s biggest sci-fi properties?—but stages some competent phony action. It takes the repetitive violence of video games and plays its mind-numbing senselessness for the shallowness it is. No wonder Guy, with his aw-shucks disbelief, wants more. The script finds a few good jokes here and there, and hooks into some ideas about games and modern life and creativity. (That Waititi is the mouthpiece for the movie’s swipes at corporate sequel culture is amusing, and ironic.) And in the end it’s somehow a little sweet and genuine in the midst of all its foolery. I still didn’t care about Reynold’s Guy and his computer friends, and didn’t entirely buy the ways the code of the game interacts with its makers, but sometimes when a movie plows ahead believing something so intently while making it the cornerstone of its emotional appeal, you just go with it.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Furred Responders: PAW PATROL: THE MOVIE

PAW Patrol: The Movie is strictly kids’ stuff, and that’s what’s refreshing about it. Watching the feature film adaptation of a long-running Nickelodeon cartoon pitched squarely at preschoolers, I found myself charmed by its bold primary colors and the Fisher-Price textures to the rounded shiny CG animation (much better than the show’s cheap look) in a story about a team of first responders who are little dogs. The first scene finds a tanker truck dangling precariously over the edge of a suspension bridge. “Call the police!” the driver hollers. No can do, a witness shouts back. In this town, they have the PAW Patrol, puppies who zip around in emergency vehicles outfitted with little gadgets that help them save the day. There’s a cop pup, a fire pup, a helicopter pup, a recycling pup, and so on, color coordinated and in their own spiffy little outfits with distinct little personalities. They’re led by a plucky boy who somehow is their boss and supplies the tech. They drive into this cliched superhero scenario and rescue those in danger. They do a good job. It’s not hard to see why this town would defund the police and just fund a PAW Patrol instead. They all bark in squeaky kid voices and spend long sequences announcing their vehicles’ features—the better to advertise what’s now in a toy catalogue near you, I suppose. But there’s a grinning simple charm in seeing these dogs bop about their episodic adventures saving people—protecting and serving in ways first responders do at their best. It’s an easy-going movie, full of high-stakes peril in low-stakes presentations, a comforting professionalism and a squeaky-clean good-conquers-foolish tone.

Watching them do their thing, I realized how few superhero movies are accessible to actual children these days — they’re all dark and hectic and bloodlessly violent and over-plotted and stuffed with quips that can drip innuendo. When was the last time you saw a comic book hero merely save a vehicle from falling off a bridge? Or stop a puffed up egotistical incompetent mayor whose kooky ideas lead the citizens of his metropolis into regular danger? (When the mayor unveils the roller coaster loop he put in the middle of the subway route, he preens for the cameras, saying, “I’m an unqualified elected official! What could go wrong?”) Here the PAW Patrol is a civic-minded Avengers, saving people by driving out of their headquarters on an enormous Hot Wheels-style ramp and into gentle but bouncy adventure with mild jokes and easy lessons. Through the power of teamwork they’re putting out fires and pulling people out of floods and all sorts of things that honest-to-goodness real-life heroes do. After the year we’ve had, how nice to sell young families a cheery, earnest, clear message that caring about your fellow citizens builds a better world for us all. Even if it’s also hoping to sell merch along the way, it’s colorful and kind and quick. I suspect it won’t make many adult converts to the series, but it does what it does just well enough. I was glad to see it.

Monday, August 16, 2021


Writer-director Mike White knows wealth is a poison. The ways privilege infects a mind and soul has been the background hum of his work over the last decade, sometimes bubbling up to the surface. His two-season HBO comedy-drama Enlightened took a corporate exec and watched her spiral as she tried to put her life back together. His Beatriz at Dinner stranded a working-class Mexican-American masseuse at a client’s party where a bloviating racist mogul oozes non-stop Trumpian chatter. His Brad’s Status found a Ben Stiller of anxiety burbling out of a college tour that highlighted an aging man caught between the separation of the very wealthy from the merely well-off. But all this swirling interest in inequality and its effects, so well-attuned to the currents underlying whorls of outrage, finds a refinement and culmination in The White Lotus, a six-hour resort-set miniseries HBO finished airing tonight. (There’s already word it’ll get another season with a new location and new cast; here’s hoping it’ll be just as good.) This work is a reaction to and dissection of the prevailing culture of the time in a way that’s bleakly hilarious, simultaneously sympathetically observed and witheringly, pitilessly critical. It’s a low-simmer melodrama, even a tragedy in some of its dimensions, wrapped in a dazzling social comedy of manners and errors. There’s rot in this here resort, and it’s not the staff. We watch as the wealthy bring all their problems on vacation, and, if they leave with a step up to a better life, it’s often, whether they’re aware of it or not, on the backs of those they view as beneath them. In our economy, what’s trickling down from the one percent is the pitch black toxin of their privilege.

White sets up an ensemble of guests arriving at the eponymous Hawaiian resort, some more likable than others. There’s a Big Tech boss (Connie Britton), her insecure husband (Steve Zahn) and their two near-grown children (Sydney Sweeney and Fred Hechinger) with a friend (Brittany O’Grady). There’s a newlywed real estate heir (Jake Lacy) and wife (Alexandra Daddario). There’s a spacey, needy inscrutably wealthy (Jennifer Coolidge) with her mother’s ashes in tow. They show up hoping to get away from it all, but find they’ve brought their emotional issues and interpersonal melodramas with them. White stages their criss-crossing dilemmas with a great skill for juggling complications in rich juxtapositions that build up momentum and sharply timed shaping to each hour. No one plot thread gets more or less attention than feels exactly right.

Through the course of their days, relationships start to chafe. There’s something about a vacation that lets one really confront a traveling companion’s true self, who they really are when the quotidian day-to-day goes away. White sees how these awful people’s flaws are the reasons for their unhappiness. No wonder vacation is no perfect balm; they are the ones they need to escape. All they’ve done is bring their whirling problems—insecurities, jealousies, inadequacies—to rest among the locals and staff forced to put on a happy face and put up with them. We see the annoyance behind the Fawlty grins of the hotel manger (Murray Bartlett) and empathetic spa manager (Natasha Rothwell). They want to do their jobs well, but these guests sure make it difficult sometimes. There are unmistakable optics to these wealthy white privileged overgrown babies looking to be coddled—throwing tantrums about booking errors, or wandering listlessly in search of a drink, or validation—arriving on the shores of a tropical island with all the presumption of ownership.

It’s underlined by the teen’s friend admitting her college research is on colonialism. (Big topic, the dad shrugs.) The colonizer/colonized relationship not only isn’t dead, it’s here. We meet a native Hawaiian working at the resort (Kekoa Scott Kekumano) who says his family is fighting his place of employment in a land dispute. We see an employee strung along by a time-suck of a guest who dangles the prospect of funding her business idea. We see the hotel manager increasingly frazzled by the unrelenting demands of a blood-boilingly entitled guy’s inability to let a small problem go. This hotel is a paradise of astonishing views, sumptuously photographed in every crashing wave and painterly sunset, and it’s filled with the pettiest, shallowest, tunnel-visioned people. The ensemble is uniformly strong—biting off snappy lines and wallowing in self-loathing or despicable behavior, all the worse when it’s tossed off so casually as to not see the impact, even on their supposed loved ones. They’re too busy rushing off to the next sex, drugs, alcohol, conference call, spa treatment, or scuba training on their to-do list.

White writes the upstairs-downstairs dynamic with aplomb, clearly having great empathy for the genuine pain all parties find themselves in, while allowing the dialogue to sparkle and snap with the most laser-focused incisive satirical detail. He lets the truly loathsome distinguish themselves from the merely troubled with their own words—digging holes for others to fall into. Watch how a well-meaning person accidentally ruins a life; or a high-society mother (Molly Shannon) swoops in chanting about the benefits of money, money, money; or a seemingly good-intentioned offer becomes just another heartbreak when a new distraction comes along. In total, the six hours add up to a compelling piece of work, as hilarious as it is sad, as enraging and it is engaging. Even the score, a howling, near-hyperventilating pseudo-Hawaiian folk song theme that settles into lovely languors of classical music or tribal hymns, captures the uncertain mood. The season builds to a fevered finale in which agonies and ecstasies are approached and sometimes tipped over, and ends in a grand melancholy disappointment and a note of tenuous, fleeting near-hope. White sees the worst in his characters while also seeing the full complexity and context behind these qualities. He loves, and he loathes, sometimes at once. He transcends caricature to find real, complicated portraits of these particular people. He finds moments of grace, and moments of criticism, and moments when characters finally collide in inevitable disagreements. And he understands the greater societal impact their flaws have. He watches as no matter what happens, these guests are free to go take their chaos elsewhere and leave others to pick up the consequences.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Call of the Mild: JUNGLE CRUISE and VIVO

Jungle Cruise is a throwback to a throwback to a throwback. It’s Jaume Collet-Serra’s Stephen Sommer’s Steven Spielberg’s homage to adventure serials. And then there’s a whole lot of other recent(ish) live-action Disney adventure movies — Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure — thrown in on top of the fact it’s loosely based on an attraction from Disneyland et al. The wonder is that it works at all. The jaunty opening has much promise. It’s 1916, a time when a story like this would’ve made fine pulp magazine reading. We find a scrappy woman explorer (Emily Blunt) infiltrating a stuffy old boy’s club scientific association in jolly old London in order to heist an artifact that will lead her to a magic flower deep in the Amazon. There’s some clever sneaking and light fisticuffs, ending with a near-pratfall involving a window, a ladder, and a double decker bus. Neat. From there, the whole set up is archetypal adventure fun as it goes through some stunt-show paces. To the plucky woman we add her persnickety posh brother (Jack Whitehall) off to the jungle where they hire a punning, slumming skipper (Dwayne Johnson) willing to hire his ramshackle boat for their purposes. Hot on their tail: the Kaiser’s U-boat-captaining son (Jesse Plemons) who speaks in a loopy accent and talks intently with wild animals; and some gloopy undead conquistadors who look like rejected designs from Verbinski’s Pirates.

So the variables are there for a fine adventure, every cog in place. Even the thin, vaguely African Queen dynamic plays off some light crackling dialogue at first. Johnson does sturdy, unsurprising work as a steady rock, while Blunt wears the pants in the transaction, and the character actors spin around the margins to keep the plot and the comedic relief puttering along. There’s a baseline competency here, surely courtesy director Collet-Serra, who, with smaller genre efforts from the disturbing adoption horror story Orphan and economical shark attack picture The Shallows to a string of Liam Neeson’s best thrillers, often does more with less. Here, though, in the grinding machine of the biggest studio around, he ends up doing less with more. As the movie goes on, the stunts get less focused on charming old school pleasures like dangling from ropes and swinging off boats, and more on endless CG haziness and weightless peril that drags on and on. By that point the characters have never really sparked with personality beyond the surface appeal. Even the increasingly boring puzzle that is the central quest — it’s both too simple to care about, and too complicated to figure out without arbitrary exposition — never generates more than a token amount of suspense. The fizz goes out of the confection way too early and then you’re just stuck watching the animatronic figures passing for people as the screenplay’s stiff hydraulics makes them herk and jerk. The whole thing is dopey and baggy and corny and chipper and artificial. In other words: it’s a theme park ride. Guess that’s the point.

Somehow Sony Animation has been more consistent about letting the distinct personalities of its filmmakers shine through their projects. Earlier this year was the charming, hectic, sharply funny The Mitchells vs. The Machines, which definitely fits the Gravity Falls sweet-and-silly creepy-and-clever mold from which its makers hail. Other high points include Spider-Verse making comic panel sense out of CG swoops. Even the Hotel Transylvanias have been an interesting push-pull between the cartoony look of animator Genndy Tartakovsky and the hangout vibe of star Adam Sandler. The studio’s latest is Vivo, the story of an adorable kinkajou, a small critter that looks like a cross between a monkey and a raccoon. He performs with an old busker on the streets of Havana. If you didn’t go in aware this was a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical, you’d know the instant the animal opened its cute little mouth to sing-rap his way through an introductory song. It gives the movie that distinct wordy patter and lilting melodies that made Hamilton and In the Heights such good song scores. Sure, Miranda’s seemingly been everywhere the last six or seven years, and sometimes crosses over into the omnipresence that invites backlash — or at least people growing tired of his formula — but I still get a little musical theater lift out of his syncopated enjambment and complicated rhymes. Vivo feels like his work through and through, from its loners longing for belonging, to families struck with loss, and communities coalescing around what makes them special. That the screenplay is credited partially to Quiara Alegría Hughes, Miranda’s Heights co-writer, makes that continuity all the more apparent.  

The plot here is pretty standard kids’ movie stuff, but it’s done up in pleasant style and set to a fine beat. Vivo’s elderly owner gets an invitation to attend the final concert of his old unrequited love, a famous singer who moved to Miami when they were younger. He can’t make it, for sad reasons, but Vivo gets his hands on a love song the man wrote for her explaining his true feelings. So it’s up to the kinkajou to get it to Miami himself, reluctantly tagging along with a rambunctious tween Floridian to get there in time. The simple story jets through the Everglades, meeting other animals along the way, while the girl’s mother gives chase, and the big concert draws nearer. The whole thing has the hurry-scurry energy of some Pixar-style moves, without working up to that level. And there’s never much sense that the ending’s in doubt. But, however thinly drawn, the designs of the characters are cute, and the look of the animation is painted in popping primary colors. And there’s a zip to its plotting that seems to understand the story is simple and the motivations are broad. Even when it leans down hard on sentimentality, there’s plenty of time spent in a sweet spot of cartoon silliness and unexpected little gags. (I liked a despondent love-sick bird, and, elsewhere, some overzealous Girl Scouts in pursuit of our leads.) There’s also the bouncing energy from consistently apportioned musical numbers keeping the project afloat. They may not be top-tier Miranda compositions (maybe the Moana vet is saving his really great stuff for his forthcoming return engagement with Disney Animation), but there’s a certain charm and cleverness to the Latin rhythms in music and lyrics. I couldn’t help but grin when an imaginative girl spins a swirling hallucination out of a dance track about following the beat of her own drum, or at a climactic number in which a speedboat zooms toward a neon Miami as different characters sing about running out of time. And in the end it’s a sweet-hearted all-ages movie about appreciating family you have and what talents you can share. It’s nice.

Friday, August 6, 2021


James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is better than David Ayer’s 2016 adaptation of DC’s Dirty Dozen riff to which the new movie is a combo sequel, retread, and reboot. But what a low bar to set. Ayer’s version was severely compromised by studio meddling, as he’s more than willing to tell anyone who’ll listen. But even so, though his movie looked and moved like it barely got out of the editing room — choppy, ungainly, atonal, nonsensical — and had an off-putting ooze of nastiness in characterization and tone, it matched his filmmaking personality. Ayer, of End of Watch and Fury, is darkly preoccupied with antihero ugliness, cops and gangs, men of violence, inscrutable poisoned macho codes, and leering pleasure in bloodletting. One felt that, among the film’s many issues, his go-around in the comic book movie world was an oozing R barely, uncomfortably, trimmed back to a chaotic blockbuster PG-13. Somehow Gunn got to go all the way in this new version, clearly positioned as a corrective, a make-good acknowledgement the studio shouldn’t have held back last time. It just took a string of pleasantly eccentric and uneven DC movies — Aquaman, Shazam, Snyder’s Justice League — to get Warner Brothers to let creatives swing away, cinematic universe be damned. Why out do Marvel with connectivity when they could differentiate by going wilder and woolier?

So Gunn, hopping over from the rival house style after a stint with the Guardians of the Galaxy, is happy to meld the joshing Marvel sentimentality with his brand of affection for assembling a band of misfit toys and a bracing exploitation cynicism from his Troma days where gooey body horror and geysers of blood and guts are meant to give the audience a sick kick. The idea of assembling a team of C-list supervillains for a suicide mission remains an irresistible one, and this film is eager to turn it into a playground for character actors and effects artists. And the abandon of the storytelling makes any character fair game to receive a headshot as a punchline. It carries over leaders Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) and Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), as well as wild card Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), and surrounds them with a new cast of expendables. Idris Elba makes the best impression as a reluctant leader, while the likes of John Cena, David Dastmalchian, and Daniela Melchior play a motley crew of combination comic relief and oddball energy. Each with their own powers — marksmanship, deadly polka dots, rats, and did I mention the talking shark (Sylvester Stallone)? — they’re dropped onto a fictional South American island where they trudge through the jungle and slip into a dictator’s compound with the mission of getting rid of a shady science experiment. The movie at least has the sense to set that simple objective and head straight there, while finding a few moderately engaging twists along the way. It’s enjoyable, if all a bit too much.

The project matches Gunn’s filmmaking personality, a quipping, vulgar, tightly scripted and shaggily developed mean-streak with a mix-tape heart of gold. He can’t help himself. His films play like the work of the most talented dirty-minded dork from your junior high all grown up. Here it comes out as prankish and coarse and high on its own self-amused supply. There’s some token nods towards serious ideas, like a recognition of compromised US foreign policy and a fig leaf of social commentary about prisons and militarism. (An all-American anti-hero named Peacekeeper says he loves peace so much he’s willing to kill every man, woman, and child who gets in its way. Ha.) But the movie is far more interested in sending its colorful characters into outrageously gory action and concussive, episodic spectacles. (Each new sequence is even separated with a new splashy title, like the next issue of a comic.) In practice, each little bit is a fine spin of studio filmmaking, loud and entertaining, bright and legible, smirking and savage, clever for clever’s sake. But as a total experience is gets awfully tedious and repetitive. I felt hollowed out by the end. Part of that draining sense comes from the slippery sliding scale between deaths played for laughs and deaths played for poignancy which feels all out of whack, from a massacre of freedom fighters shrugged off to one of our more sympathetic bad guys given a backstory of a hated mother that turns into a mean sight gag. It’d be more entertaining if it was less exhausting. And yet I found myself thinking despite myself that maybe the third time would be the charm?

Wednesday, August 4, 2021


As an Arthurian legend, the English lit staple Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a chivalric stress test. It takes the self-professed weakest Knight of the Round Table, nephew to the King himself, and puts him in a simple supernatural contest that eventually tests his every vice. Thus, it makes sense The Green Knight, David Lowery’s new adaptation of this tale, is down in the gnarled moral complications and ponderous deep sorcery. It authentically inhabits the central tension between the upward pull of virtue and the the downward thrust of temptation. Watching it, so unusually structured, sticking more or less to the progression of events, with some embellishment and changes to the specifics, as laid forth in the 14th century poem and steeped in the symbolism and priorities of its characters’ moral perspective, the film starts to feel like what a medieval poet might’ve conjured if they knew about cinema. Lowery, whose works are so often atmospheric and moody in this particular hazy way, from big stuff like Disney remake Pete’s Dragon (perhaps the finest of its ilk) to intimate high-concept experiments like the spectral time-bending A Ghost Story, visualizes a stately verdant and chilly world, where the medieval muck of mud and blood is already dotted with crumbling buildings and moss-covered brick between vast stretches of pale fields and dark forests. The characters speak in murmurs, intone grave importance, cast spells, recite prayers, and send each other off with symbols and speeches, ritual perhaps grown hollow with the passing years. Arthur, too, is near the end, speaking in a sickly whisper; Sean Harris plays him with teeth hurting and breath cracking. When he stands at the Round Table for a Christmas celebration we can see the respect the Knights and Ladies have for him, but can only triangulate his charisma and power as things of the distant past, already passing into legend.

We can also see how the young man at his side, Gawain (Dev Patel), theoretically in the early heights of vigor and power, can’t quite measure up. Yet. That’s why he takes the challenge put forth by the surprise visitor, the Green Knight, who asks to receive a blow from a weapon, a strike he will repay one year hence. Gawain, afraid of those consequences, beheads the guest, who promptly recapitates himself and reminds all listening of the deadline. A deal’s a deal. The rest of the story involves Gawain diligently following through, trudging north after this magical figure in order to remain a man of his word. Along the way, as Lowery adds details to his laborious journey, including encounters with bandits, giants, and spirits, among others including a seductive Lady and Lord (Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton), it’s easy to wonder if living up to his promise is worth the cost. All this trouble just to lose one’s head. Patel makes a marvelous Gawain, handsomely smoldering with a wet-haired puppy-eyed fear and hidden hard-nosed ambition; he can be courageous, but when he is, it’s almost despite himself. He anchors long wordless stretches of dread wandering and enigmatic fantasy in the margins. 

Between the moody visuals and sluggish pace, the film becomes a slowly unfurling episodic parable, or maybe a clammy waking nightmare. More than once, the camera drifts and supernatural events are presented ambiguously. Lowery imbues the proceedings with a sense that the line between reality and unreality, truth and legend, is thinner the closer we get to the climax. And even there, where he adds a poignant riff on the idea of a life flashing before his eyes, you might initially scratch your head about what, exactly, you’re seeing. But it makes a certain intuitive, emotional, moral sense. The movie is so plain about what’s on its mind, and presents violence and sexuality so plainly (that and its narrative tweaks ensure it won’t be classroom viewing), that the big questions it tackles are never lost in the mists of a film that’s both magisterial and base. Can an impulsive young coward grow into a great knight? Can one easily drawn into mistakes learn from them and become a good man? What, in the end, are we to make of Gawain's plight? The questions are left naggingly unresolved in ways new and old here. Besides, we Gawain scholars have been wrestling with it for 600 some years. Here’s a striking reason to return.