Headhunting August 12, 2021
On The Green Knight and The Suicide Squad
he hero’s journey begins on an impulse. Shortly after the 14th-century-set The Green Knight opens, we take a seat at a darkly lit Round Table dinner.
Conversation is swiftly interrupted by an enigmatic and intimidating half-man half-tree who appears, uninvited, at the door. Astride a horse and clutching an awkwardly hefty ax, this humanoid known as the Green Knight has apparently been magically conjured by the scheming, witchy Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury). He (it?) challenges someone in the room — encompassing King Arthur (Sean Harris), his league of loyal knights, and other Camelot grandees — to a duel. Wanting to make use of his unproven might, and begin what he envisions as an extraordinary life, Arthur’s young nephew and Le Fay’s son, impetuous Gawain (a wonderfully unself-assured Dev Patel), steps out from his
shadowy corner of the room to volunteer himself. He’s readier than ever to make his knightly debut.
The Knight’s challenge, though, is a doozy; you can see Gawain’s formidably pretty face curdle with regret the more he understands what he has gotten himself into. If the Green Knight’s competitor successfully lands a blow, then he gets to keep the ax. But, a year and a day later, that competitor must then journey to the Green Knight’s chapel home to receive a twin wound. Good luck finding your way there, and good luck trying not to flinch when the time comes: the Green Knight offers no map and limited mercy. After Gawain successfully decapitates the Green Knight with a single swoop — a canny move that will seemingly end the game early — the challenge takes an unnerving turn: the Knight’s head, something of a cursed perennial, almost immediately resprouts. (He is, after all, part tree.) This is all, it turns out, a tricky game for the Green Knight; for his fleshly opponent, it’s a nightmare. The Green Knight may be able to recover from a brutal slice, but in order to hold up his side of the bargain, and solidify both his honor and eventual legend, Gawain will simply die. This is what greatness entails?
Writer-director David Lowery’s adaptation of the anonymously authored Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
poem maintains its source text’s conflicting feelings around the ideologies which undergird knighthood. How is one supposed to feel noble when the ultimate price for that nobility is one's life? While distinctly a 14th-century story, The Green Knight’s ambivalence is so unobscured that it strikes us as modern. A disillusioned 2021 seems a perfect time for this adaptation.
Gawain’s six-day journey to the Green Chapel a year later — slated to end Christmas morning — abounds with the fantastical. There is a run-in with a spirit searching for a missing head (Erin Kellyman); a plea to a group of serene and singing giants who walk and intone in perfect harmony; an interruption by a rascally thief (Barry Keoghan) and his posse; an unwanted traveling companion in a talking fox; and an overnight stay with a mysterious lord and his wife (Alicia Vikander, who for probably symbolic reasons also plays Gawain’s girlfriend back home) whose hospitality and often oblique way of speaking feel implicitly sinister.
As Gawain continued making strides toward his destiny, I sometimes thought about how stories of quests continue resonating when done right because of their foundational universalities. Who isn’t constantly extemporizing through life, guided by what they think is morally right and so often thwarted by the unclear intentions of others, as a means to get to something they believe will make them feel full, complete? Once you achieve what you not long ago thought of as a milestone and still find yourself dissatisfied, you can’t help but wonder, in the immortal words of Peggy Lee, if that’s all there is. Toward the end of The Green Knight,
Gawain unexpectedly asks something similar. This is a movie defined more by uncertainty than triumph. When someone asks Gawain how he hopes this journey will enrich his life, he says he is looking for honor — not, it is implied, because he so deeply craves it himself, but because he likes the idea of being a knight, and from what he understands that’s what a knight ought to want.
Andrew Droz Palermo’s rich cinematography paradoxically captures the beatific magnificence and utter hostility of the Irish landscape through which Gawain travels, prone to as many patches of breathtaking lushness as human-caused desolation. In keeping with the Green Knight — ostensibly nature personified — Palermo’s tactile and sensuous work affirms why the natural world is something to be admired and feared at once, which is also to say something to be wisely venerated rather than thought to be superior to.
Just as much as the movie is equivocal about knightly codes, and the precarities of questing in general, the way nature and its knightly servant continuously feel like they could swallow Gawain whole also feels, to the modern eye, like a prescient environmental warning. It’s yet another interpretation of this long-overscrutinzed text. When your allegiance lies with a system more interested in confronting and conquering nature rather than holding it in unqualified esteem, then of course you’re going to look the fool in the long term. Nature, by design, will always have the last laugh. (Fittingly, the Green Knight himself has a memorable laugh himself — more a throaty, stately cackle, released in an echoey stream as he’s leaving the Round-Table feast at the movie’s start.) In The Green Knight, greatness is a double-edged sword. Lowery is most concerned not with the adulation it brings but the various problems, both personally and secondarily, that can result.
Some critics have noted the movie’s packaging — gorged with, in addition to its splendid photography, frankly astonishing costuming, set design, and scorework — a hair pretentious, conspicuously working to evoke grandeur without ever summoning it in a way that scans organically. But everything about The Green Knight oppositely struck me as just right when I watched it. I felt the movie’s colossal scale and grandness and enjoyed living inside of it. Sometimes I had that feeling you get when you’re in front of a floor-to-ceiling-size painting and, momentarily overwhelmed, breathe a little deeper, appreciative of the craftsmanship but more so the way you get swept up in the work.
But even though The Green Knight has a pronounced sense of wonder, and is confident in its vastness, it’s never off-puttingly earnest or self-important. It has humor, particularly around the otherworldly run-ins that slow Gawain’s quest. Certain line-readings have a knowingness. Moments of levity are a healthy countervail in a movie whose source text was already unsure about the inflated exaltation and serious hero worship familiarly at the core of Arthurian stories. I felt comforted by what felt like a certitude in vision. To paraphrase the Atlantic’s David Sims, The Green Knight is one of the year’s most complete-feeling movies. I think it’s also among the best.
Dev Patel in 2021's The Green Knight.
ames Gunn’s The Suicide Squad is exponentially better than the last attempt to unite its eponymous band of anti-heroes. But also, almost anything could be better than that cynical and profoundly joyless
2016 movie: the bar it installed currently sits in hell. The Suicide Squad shares many of its predecessor’s flaws. It too is burdened by chaotic plotting, D.O.A. jokes, incessant and glibly positioned needle-dropping. But the difference, for the 2021 rebirth, is that the unwieldy narrativizing trends charming. It’s likably “doing the most” instead of being simply ineptly told. Unlike the 2016 movie, which was only ever unfunny, plenty more well-executed comedy palliates what doesn’t work; it’s constantly (though maybe a little too constantly) joking around. And while some selections are on the nose, the soundtrack at least doesn’t make you feel more than anything like a hefty budget is being shown off. All this is to say that, ideological and political messiness aside, The Suicide Squad is pretty good. It’s basically what the 2016 film wanted to be but decisively was not, thanks to what appeared to be (and was later confirmed to be) an editing-room bloodbath.
The first movie’s The Dirty Dozen (1967)-style premise remains. A carefully assembled team of quote-unquote bad guys agrees to go on a sure-to-be-deadly mission for the U.S. government to shorten their very long prison sentences. In The Suicide Squad, the assignment is to demolish a Nazi-era laboratory, lodged on the dictator-led South American island Corto Maltese, containing an improbably dangerous experiment. (Well, that’s the cover story: what the U.S. really wants is to destroy evidence of its involvement in a dastardly plot once upon a time.) After many players of it are whittled down during the film’s goofy-gory opening sequence, the central “squad” comprises grudging team leader Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, predictably great and predictably not given enough to do), Peacemaker (John Cena), Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), and King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone). Their powers matter less than the fact that their clashing personalities foster amiable odd couple (group?)-style comedy.
The action sequences are generally perfunctory (with an exception in its cheeky kaiju-inspired finale), but the performances and Gunn’s stylistic flourishes have enough zing to do some uplifting. I especially enjoyed, on the latter front, a solo Quinn action sequence in which every blow to an opponent births cartoon flora and happy birds. The inspired visual choice puts you inside her head while also generally making the scene, to put it unimaginatively, look cooler. It works two-fold in a great way. I also appreciated the pulpy use of intertitles, one of which includes an over-the-top-but-still-winning allusion to Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), a movie that broadly feels of a piece with The Suicide Squad in how it too makes you so constantly think about mortality’s insecurity that it becomes a fog over the movie, and also because its director, Sam Peckinpah, like Gunn was never afraid of explosions of shocking violence. (The Suicide Squad never gets as bleak as Alfredo Garcia, though; violence and death, in contrast to Peckinpah’s movies, almost always have a darkly comedic lilt — blood splatter is as commonplace as confetti at a spoiled child’s birthday party.)
Though for all its moments of inspiration, given a leg up purely because of how bad the first Suicide Squad movie was, this reboot/sequel never persuades us that it’s indispensable — a much-needed move away from artistically tainted property. It seems to exist more than anything to stamp out the misfire that was its predecessor — like an replacing of a same-named file on a computer. Not changing the title, aside from the confident “the” plopped at the front, seems the proof. The Suicide Squad is just a giddily shot and often very funny retooling of familiar formula, likely to feel fresher and more welcomely irreverent if it were released, ahem, in 2016, when a hard-R superhero comedy à la Deadpool still felt like a movie-length jolt. It’s pleasurable in many ways because of what has been improved on. It’s like a long-delayed polishing-up of the
first draft that was the first movie, not much more.
The Green Knight: A
The Suicide Squad: B