The 10 Best Movies in Theaters Right Now

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The 10 Best Movies in Theaters Right Now

Movie theaters are officially back. As the cinematic offerings slowly return to the big screen compared to the streaming services and various digital rental retailers, we’re here to sort out what’s actually the best bang for your buck at the box office.

A pair of indie movies, Ema and Cryptozoo left this list over the last week, finally departing the big screen as they wait for their turn on VOD. That left things wide open for James Wan’s madcap horror Malignant and Nicolas Cage’s even more madcap samurai Western Prisoners of the Ghostland. Watch and enjoy the bonkers beauty.

Of course, use your judgment when choosing whether to go back to the movies or not, but there’s an ever-growing percentage of vaccinated moviegoers who are champing at the bit to get back in front of the big screen. And I’m very happy to say that we’re back, here to help.

That said, things in theatrical distribution are a little strange right now, so apart from some big recent blockbusters, there’s a mix of Oscar-winners, lingering releases, indies and classics booked—depending, of course, on the theater. But thankfully, there’s been enough good movies actually released recently this year that you should have no problem finding something great to watch.

Check out the 10 best movies in theaters right now:

10. Malignant

malignant-poster.jpg Release Date: September 10, 2021
Director: James Wan
Stars: Annabelle Wallis, Maddie Hasson, George Young, Michole Briana White
Rating: R
Runtime: 111 minutes

There’s no denying that writer/director James Wan’s first feature, 2003’s Saw, was a horror phenomenon. The movie was so popular it spawned nine-plus nasty sequel installments and went on to become one of the most well-known entries in the genre. Then he did it again with the Insidious franchise—and again with the Conjuring universe. What I’m saying is, the man knows horror. So it came as no surprise to me that by the time the credits rolled on his new terror trip Malignant, I was grinning and nodding my head Joker-style. The film ends up playing like the horror version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas:” It has been several years since Wan wrote, directed and produced a genre piece and it’s hard not to love having him back under the morbid mistletoe—even if the material is a little wackier and weirder than before. Malignant tells the story of Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a pregnant woman rattled by a particular bout of abuse from her husband. The incident sets in motion a series of events which begins with consistent yet unexplained bleeding from the head and culminates in paralyzing visions of murder that are, shocker, actually real. This is a film you don’t spoil—once the pieces of the puzzle start coming together, you’ll find it was worth staying in the dark—so I won’t. Admittedly, the film has a bit of a slow start. In fact, in the first half, I was wondering if I was going to end up hating it purely on pace alone. But around the 40-minute mark, I found myself subconsciously settling into the plotline of a film I was happy to write off in the beginning. The first chunk comes off a bit muddled and beckons you to keep up with what little exposition it gives you. That did sour me, I’ll admit, but like any good game, it paid dividends after the wait. Things became clearer, loose ends tied up—and the whole thing goes zero to 60 incredibly quickly. As proven time and time again within the Saw franchise, Wan is all about a balls-to-the-wall twist and Malignant throws one at us intended to splatter us in the face. There is a lot of homage in Malignant—was it just me or was there a hard electro remix of “Where Is My Mind” by the Pixies playing over nearly every kill?—but mostly, the film ends up being a writer/director’s love letter to his past. To the early days of his career, to his roots. At this point, he deserves to pat himself on the back, and I’m happy that the result is a return to form. To know Wan is to (mostly) love him, and Malignant is no exception…as long as you’re willing to stick it out.—Lex Briscuso

9. F9

f9-poster.jpg Release Date: June 25, 2021
Director: Justin Lin
Stars: Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, John Cena, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Sung Kang, Charlize Theron
Genre: Action
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 143 minutes

This latest entry marks the return of director Justin Lin, who helped guide the series’ evolution from Tokyo Drift to Fast & Furious 6, and while he struggles with how unwieldy F&F has become, his undeniable understanding of what makes these movies tick keeps the film roaring along. Lin’s still adding new characters and twists to this high-octane telenovela as often as prefixes, retconning deaths and introducing long-lost brothers as easily as he moves from simply defying physics to defying astrophysics—as easily as he turned street-racing spies into globe-trotting superspies. The crew, including the newly domestic Dom and Letty, is pulled back into the world of…whatever it is they do...once again and their impossible mission (which they always choose to accept) has to do with another globally destructive techno-MacGuffin and a globally destructive flesh-MacGuffin: Dom’s younger brother Jakob (John Cena), excommunicated from the family for sins that become apparent over the course of extensive flashbacks. As Dom’s uneasy relationship with Jakob becomes clear—over the course of explosion-laden jungle races, rooftop chases and posh sitting room brawls—F9’s knowing relationship with its own cartoonishness balances it out. One of the funniest gags sees Tyrese Gibson’s Roman openly speculating if he and the rest of the crew have plot armor. Are they actually invincible? The gang realizing that they’re all in a movie seems like it could honestly be the next step, with them turning their cars towards the camera and bursting out of the fiction like Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck. While both come too late in the film for my taste (leaving much of the film hanging on how pleased you get seeing the admittedly amusing returns of Sung Kang and Lucas Black), two innovations keep F9 on the cutting edge of ridiculous action: Magnets and rockets. But such winning ideas, timed as they are to energize a relatively dramatic entry like last-minute nitro boosts, have a hard time standing out amidst the meandering plot and the narrative’s bevy of cameos. Perhaps the most telling way in which you can tell that F9’s action is a little underwhelming is that the standout moment from the film is purely dramatic. A shockingly well-directed “life flashing before your eyes” sequence allows Diesel to undersell a bevy of emotions through little more than a lemon-pursed mouth, while Lin spins his past, present and future around him. It’s not a great standalone entry into the Fast canon, but as the franchise speeds towards its finish line, it’s still satisfying to know that it’s in the hands of someone well-versed in the series’ strengths and still willing to imagine new ways to crash its toys into each other.—Jacob Oller

8. Old

old-poster.jpg Release Date: July 23, 2021
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Stars: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Eliza Scanlen, Thomasin McKenzie, Alex Wolff
Genre: Horror/Thriller
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 108 minutes

The reception to The Visit and Split proclaimed that Shyamalan was “back,” but Glass—a deeply earnest critical miss—portended the director’s true return to form with Old. Old centers on an outwardly perfect nuclear family that is, of course, quietly fracturing. Husband Guy (Gael García Bernal), a risk assessor, and wife Prisca (Vicky Krieps), a museum curator, spit at one another over their impending separation and an as-yet-unknown medical diagnosis given to Prisca while on their vacation away at a beautiful, tropical resort with their two kids: Pre-teen Maddox (Alexa Swinton) and six-year-old Trent (Nolan River). The quiet day, isolated from the resort’s overcrowded main beach, starts off peacefully enough—children playing, selfie-taking, problem-avoiding—until everything slowly, carefully begins to unravel. The children discover lost personal items from the hotel hidden beneath the sand; Charles’ mother-in-law experiences strange pains in her chest; a rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan (Aaron Pierre)—yes, that’s right—lingers strangely at a distance as an earlier brief, cryptic scene between him and an anonymous young woman on the beach leads us to understand that something has gone seriously wrong. And that’s when the body turns up. As fear and confusion escalate among the beach-goers, Shyamalan expertly disorients the audience along with them, crafting an atmosphere of deep claustrophobia despite being surrounded by the vastness of the open ocean. The moments leading up to the realization that all three children have drastically aged are like living inside a panic attack: Mike Gioluakis’ cinematography alternates close-ups of anguished faces as they are flanked by various disarray on all sides. Loosely adapted from Pierre-Oscar Lévy and Frederick Peeters’ graphic novel Sandcastle, Old is a simple tale of cosmic terror—a Twilight Zone-esque look at mortality and greater-good sacrifice of life that is creepy, beautifully set up and followed through. In the end, the scariest thing in Old is not that our bodies will age and decay, or that nature is punishing our very intrusive presence within it (much like the beach-goers’ intrusion on the lush, natural world), but that we will spend our lives preoccupied by ultimately meaningless problems and frivolities with ourselves and one another that rapidly consume our ticking clocks, while people in positions of power view our short lives as expendable for some perceived “greater good.” Old is not Shyamalan’s best film, but it’s both a chilling summer escape and an empathetic reminder that other people are working against us as just as quickly as time, when all we have in our time left is each other.—Brianna Zigler

7. Language Lessons

language-lessons-poster.jpg Release Date: September 10, 2021
Director: Natalie Morales
Stars: Natalie Morales, Mark Duplass
Rating: NR
Runtime: 91 minutes

Mark Duplass has never been more charming and down to Earth than in his Room 104 collaborator Natalie Morales’ sophomore directorial effort, Language Lessons (her Plan B hit Hulu in May), but he has to be that charming to keep up with her. They’re an incongruous pair but well-matched regardless, she the younger, hungrier directorial talent, he an elder statesman of indie cinema’s mumblecore movement. They make a surprising amount of sense together even though their roles are somewhat reversed in the movie’s context: Morales plays Cariño, a Spanish tutor living in Costa Rica, while Duplass plays Adam, her new student tuning in from Oakland. Cariño has the authority. Granted, the film opens on her face as she fires up Zoom for their first lesson, and her initial composure melts into immediate confusion. There’s a man on the other end of the session, but for all it matters to her he’s just a disembodied voice. “I’m Will,” the voice tells her. “So, Adam is my husband. I bought him these Spanish immersion lessons.” Adam appears demanding coffee, sees Cariño staring at him from the computer, and matches her confusion with his own. So their relationship begins, the educator attempting to teach Spanish to a pupil whose Spanish is pretty darn good. He simply wants to get “his words” back, having spent parts of his childhood in Mexico and attained fluency at one time in his life. Cariño and Adam converse and as they converse, something more like friendship emerges, especially after their second lesson, which starts with Adam prone in bed. Tragedy has struck: Will died. As Language Lessons progresses in screenlife—a mechanical style that manages to capture a contemporary way of life with a spartan artistry all the same—their preconceptions about one another are defied time and again. A computer can only constrict humanity for so long before humanity smashes through it like a rhino through a safari car, but smashing through the constriction is painful. Duplass and Morales play their parts with honesty and grace; they write those parts and the drama between them with straightforward understanding of the complications of remote associations, and the total package is then presented straightforwardly. There’s no other way for screenlife to present itself. But the film loses nothing in that straightforwardness, neither authenticity nor humanity nor Morales’ appeal as an actress-turned-multihyphenate.—Andy Crump

6. Prisoners of the Ghostland

prisoners-of-the-ghostland-poster.jpg Release Date: September 17, 2021
Director: Sion Sono
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella, Nick Cassavetes, Bill Mosely, Tak Sakaguchi
Rating: NR
Runtime: 103 minutes

A little less than halfway through Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland, Nicolas Cage, swathed and winched within a black leather bodysuit as much The Road Warrior as it is Scorpio Rising, literalizes the overindulgence that’s both vaunted his myth and socked him in the groin for the past 15-or-so-odd years. I’m unsure how long it’s been—we all are, because we remember nothing different, even the absurd notion that he’s an Oscar-winning performer who smoothly moved into action-adventures and then slipped dramatically on a banana peel into financially motivated VOD bacchanalia. All part of the well-known mystique. Where did this begin? Was it with Next and Bangkok Dangerous in 2008, the year of his worst-looking hair, as he ground down his hero persona into bland paste, or do we go back further, to the remake of The Wicker Man and Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, both in 2006, to search for the first signs, the initial threads of his undoing? As is the case with many men in his field, time cannot be read on his face. Or in his hairline. Has he always been like this? Will he? Nicolas Cage, our scion of the American spirit on screen—much too game, fearless, ill-advised, hair-dyed—here he displays a new kind of vulnerability, a bloodletting of his most personal bits, so to speak. The moment is gross and seems unimaginably painful. Sono plays it as a punchline. In the middle of the nowhere of Prisoners of the Ghostland is Samurai Town, a typical old west locale that’s little more than an extravagant main street festooned with an alchemy of genre tropes. Geishas beckon and pose behind glass and elaborate masks as samurai and cowboys and samurai cowboys drool and drink and fight and fill the hybrid reality with cinematic shorthand. Hero (Cage), imprisoned for a bank heist years before that still haunts him, receives an ultimatum and a quest from local creepy crime boss the Governor (Bill Mosely) in exchange for his freedom. Shackled with explosives around his neck, wrists, thighs, and balls, the leather bodysuit his super-anti-hero get-up, Hero must venture into the apocalyptic Ghostland to retrieve Bernice (Sophia Boutella), the Governor’s beloved “daughter.” Though Sono seems to prefer style and genre to fill in for major worldbuilding, Prisoners of the Ghostland doles out surprisingly clear exposition—enough, at least, to understand the stakes and care about who lives or who (grotesquely, we can only hope) dies. Like John Carpenter, Sono can, at his best, match style and substance to craft what feels like a perfect object. At his less powerful, in something like the vulgar musical Tokyo Tribe, his visual conceits can get so dense the film becomes lost in a self-contained loop of allusion and homage. Fortunately, writers Aaron Henry and Reza Sixo Safai anchor Sono’s sensibilities in the machismo and cold war paranoia of ‘80s action behemoths. In his English language debut, the director’s invested in his silver screen maven—all of this man, his past and present and future—without giving too easily into Cage’s self-destructive self-awareness. Regardless, he hoots and slinks and mean-mugs his way through Sono’s Ghostland, his instincts as an American actor, alone in his ivory tower head of actorly actorliness, poltergeisting every inch of this lovely and bonkers movie. He has the potential to be breathtaking.—Dom Sinacola

5. The Suicide Squad

the-suicide-squad-poster.jpg Release Date: August 6, 2021
Director: James Gunn
Stars: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Nathan Fillion, Steve Agee, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis
Rating: R
Runtime: 132 minutes

How is James Gunn one of the only people that actually seems to know how to make a comic book movie feel like it was built out of a comic book? Sure, the excellent Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse did it, but it took making one of the most impressive animated movies in years. Writer/director Gunn, who’s hopped over to DC after making a pair of Guardians of the Galaxy movies for Marvel, achieves some of the same delirious multimedia fidelity in live-action with The Suicide Squad, his bombastic, silly and self-aware revisionist take on the super-group of screw-ups coerced into jobs too tough, dangerous and/or undesirable for the conventional wetworkers of our humble government. Gunn’s action has such a clear and confident tone that it can pepper in filmmaking winks—like quick Bourne-like zooms when Task Force X director Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) plays God with the lives of costumed crooks from the safety of her command center—to add a little more visual flavor to its already over-the-top, R-rated, downright enjoyable adaptation. Part of the joke is the sheer quantity of goofball Legion of Doom rejects shoved into the mix. Sure, you’ve got the familiarly chaotic clown-about-town Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, who’s by now thoroughly made the role her own), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) and straight-laced military man Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) alongside the new A-listers (John Cena’s Captain America pastiche, Peacemaker; Idris Elba’s gruff sharpshooter Bloodsport). But there’s a Golden Corral buffet of questionable riffraff introduced as well, including but not limited to: King Shark (Sylvester Stallone, channeling a dumber and hungrier Groot), Polka-Dot Man (David Dastmalchian), Ratcatcher 2 (Daniela Melchior), Blackguard (Pete Davidson) and a human-sized weasel (Sean Gunn). They’re all distinct and most of them are distinctly, joyfully hateable. And over the course of The Suicide Squad’s solid tropical island action movie—one that’s politics are almost as sharply cynical as its true-to-source treatment of its protagonistic supervillains—Gunn isn’t afraid to dole out the kind of consequences that have mostly been relegated to the fun-poking, franchise-flouting realms of TV superhero meta-critiques like The Boys and Invincible. These aren’t unfamiliar to Suicide Squad readers, but they’re increasingly shocking, strange and bracing (not to mention fun!) to find in AAA studio movies. As the team moves from FUBAR beach operations on Corto Maltese to sabotaging its local lab’s super-science, actual tension develops—a rarity among The Suicide Squad’s contemporaries. Whatever power its additional The gave it couldn’t completely divorce it from some expected genre limitations, but it’s helped continue and solidify the way Warner Bros. is responding to Marvel’s utter dominance of the form: Not by getting more serious, but by seriously investing in the idiosyncrasies of its comics.—Jacob Oller

4. Candyman

candyman-poster.jpg Release Date: August 27, 2021
Director: Nia DaCosta
Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Tony Todd, Vanessa Estelle Williams
Rating: R
Runtime: 91 minutes

The problem with writing about Candyman is that you will inevitably have to write “Candyman” five times. What if my monitor suddenly craps out, leaving me to see a paranormal entity rocking a full-length shearling behind my dark reflection? Unlike many of the white Chicagoans in writer/director Nia DaCosta’s slasher sequel, I’m not foolish enough to tempt the Bloody Mary of the Near North Side. I am, however, still drawn to her update of the legend, which manages to pick up the original film’s pieces and put them back together in a compelling, reclamatory collage. Ignoring the rest of the Candyman series in favor of a direct follow-up to Bernard Rose’s allegory-rich 1992 slasher, DaCosta introduces fancy-pants artist Anthony (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) to the same urban legend that consumed lookie-loo grad student Helen Lyle. The original story adapted Clive Barker to U.S. racism and wealth inequality—particularly in Chicago, and even more particularly in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects. Now its homes and high-rises have been demolished or abandoned. A massive Target overlooks its northwest border, where you can buy athleisure and grab an in-house Starbucks before heading to Panera Bread. Gentrification may have neatly plastered over history, but that history cannot be so easily erased. “A story like that—a pain like that—lasts forever,” says Colman Domingo’s long-timer laundryman Burke. “That’s Candyman.” DaCosta makes it clear that Anthony’s pulled by the legend, by history, more intimately than Helen ever was, and updates her scares in turn. The nightmarish apartments and putrid bathrooms Helen crawled through and photographed neatly reflected the entity haunting them; but the projects have been paved over, and Candyman persists. DaCosta shoots the city accordingly, either in dividing straight lines, or fully warped: You never notice how Marina City’s towers look like beehives until they’re flipped upside-down. Spurred on by Anthony’s interest, Candyman’s now an inevitability in every reflective surface. You can’t look away from DaCosta’s inspired compositions and layouts, your eyes led from one dark corner to the next with an Invisible Man-like mastery of negative space. One of these days, you think, she’s going to run out of ideas about how to shoot a mirror kill. Not so, especially in her world of omnipresent, physically and psychically painful self-reflection. While the kills, perpetrated by a being mostly just seen in mirrors, are sometimes a bit too obfuscated by their gimmick to be viscerally satisfying, they slot in perfectly with the film’s themes and aesthetic even when they’re not dumping cascades of blood. The power of martyrdom, the cycles of economic exploitation, the blood price expected for progress—even if these ideas are imperfectly engaged with, they’re so compellingly introduced as to solidify Candyman as a must-see horror and a must-discuss tragedy.—Jacob Oller

3. Pig

pig-poster.jpg Release Date: July 16, 2021
Director: Michael Sarnoski
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Alex Wolff, Adam Arkin
Genre: Drama
Rating: R
Runtime: 92 minutes

In the forest outside Portland, a man’s pig is stolen. Rob (Nicolas Cage) is a witchy truffle forager that we learn used to be a chef—a Michelin-starred Baba Yaga, a gastronomical Radagast—who sells his pig’s findings to sustain his isolated life. What follows is not a revenge thriller. This is not a porcine Taken. Pig, the ambitious debut of writer/director Michael Sarnoski, is a blindsiding and measured treatise on the masculine response to loss. Featuring Nicolas Cage in one of his most successful recent permutations, evolving Mandy’s silent force of nature to an extinct volcano of scabbed-over pain, Pig unearths broad themes by thoroughly sniffing out the details of its microcosm. The other component making up this Pacific NW terrarium, aside from Rob and the golden-furred Brandy’s endearingly shorthanded connection, is the guy Rob sells his truffles to, Amir. Alex Wolff’s tiny Succession-esque business jerk is a bundle of jagged inadequacies, and only Rob’s calloused wisdom can handle such prickliness. They’re exceptional foils for one another, classic tonal opposites that share plenty under the surface of age. Together, the pair search for the pignapping victim, which inevitably leads them out of the forest and back into the city. There they collide with the seediest, John Wick’s Kitchen Confidential kind of industry underbelly you can imagine, in a series of standoffs, soliloquies and strange stares. It’s a bit heightened, but in a forgotten and built-over way that feels more secret than fantastic. The sparse and spacious writing allows its actors to fill in the gaps, particularly Cage. Where some of Cage’s most riveting experiments used to be based in manic deliveries and expressionistic faces, what seems to engage him now is the opposite: Silence, stillness, realist hurt and downcast eyes. You can hear Cage scraping the rust off Rob’s voice, grinding the interpersonal gears much like the dilapidated truck he tries (and fails) to take into town. Wolff, along with much of the rest of the cast, projects an intense desperation for validation—a palpable desire to win the rat race and be somebody. It’s clear that Rob was once a part of this world before his self-imposed exile, clear from knowing gazes and social cues as much as the scenarios that lead the pig-seekers through basements and kitchens. Part of Pig’s impactful, moving charm is its restraint. It’s a world only hinted at in 87 minutes, but with a satisfying emotional thoroughness. We watch this world turn only slightly, but the full dramatic arcs of lives are on display. A sad but not unkind movie, and certainly not a pessimistic one, Pig puts its faith in a discerning audience to look past its premise.—Jacob Oller


coda-poster.jpg Release Date: August 13, 2021
Director: Sian Heder
Stars: Marlee Matlin, Emilia Jones, Eugenio Derbez, Troy Kotsur, Daniel Durant, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Amy Forsyth
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 111 minutes

Sometimes a movie so successfully plunges you into its world that it completely engulfs you in a lived-in experience. From the gorgeous, scenic opening moments of CODA, you can almost smell the Atlantic salt air and pungent scent of the daily catch. The movie transports you to Gloucester, Massachusetts and lovingly drops you into the life of one family. Seventeen-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is what the title of the movie refers to—a child of deaf adults. She is the only hearing member of her immediate family. A senior in high school, Ruby lives with mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), father Frank (Troy Kotsur) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant). Every morning before school even begins, Ruby works with her brother and father on their fishing boat off the coast. As the family’s sole interpreter, they have come to rely on her, and she feels the weight of familial responsibility more than most high schoolers. When Ruby joins the school choir, her teacher Bernardo Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) notices that Ruby has a unique vocal talent. “There are plenty of pretty voices with nothing to say. Do you have something to say?” he asks. He works with her and encourages her to apply to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, a move that would take her away from the family that not only loves but desperately needs her. On the surface, this coming-of-age story is that simple and straightforward. But writer/director Sian Heder weaves a beautiful, nuanced and complex tale buoyed by delicate and deft performances. Although specifically about a Deaf family, the story of a child wanting to form her own identity outside of her parents is universally relatable. It’s no surprise that Matlin is terrific. The Oscar-winner has been knocking it out of the park in both television and movies since she won for Children of a Lesser God when she was just 21. Durant is equally fantastic as a guy eager to prove he can do much more than what society and his parents think he’s capable of. Derbez hits just the right note as the supportive yet demanding teacher who won’t let Ruby use her family as an excuse. As a man who has had people misjudge him his whole life, Kotsur will break your heart. But CODA truly rests on Jones’ very capable shoulders. She’s such a compelling screen presence: Ruby’s inner turmoil is palpable. By the time the movie reaches its poignant, beautiful conclusion, I defy anyone to have a dry eye. CODA is about letting go and letting your loved ones soar.—Amy Amatangelo

1. The Green Knight

the-green-knight-poster.jpg Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: David Lowery
Stars: Dev Patel, Alicia Vikander, Sarita Choudhury, Sean Harris, Ralph Ineson, Barry Keoghan, Joel Edgerton
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Rating: R
Runtime: 130 minutes

When Sir Gawain departs Camelot, he rides past a scene of desolation. A once-prosperous forest stripped of its lush greenery by human hands, only splintered wood and dust remain. Through his journey, Gawain (Dev Patel) is greeted by similar, if not entirely equal imagery, constantly evocative of mankind’s awkward, unwanted presence within the natural world. One year prior, the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson) approached King Arthur (Sean Harris) and his Knights of the Round Table, conjured up by Gawain’s mother, Morgan Le Fay (Sarita Choudhury), seeking a participant for his Christmas Game. Should one of Arthur’s knights land a blow against him, the knight shall receive his mighty axe, but must seek him out exactly one year later to receive an equal blow in return. When Gawain, reluctant to accept though eager to bring honor to his name, agrees to the Green Knight’s terms, the humanoid creature only drops his axe and lowers his head to reveal an oaken neck, offering it to Gawain freely. Naturally, Gawain succeeds, but at what cost? The Green Knight retrieves his head and rides off into the night. Gawain understands he cannot do the same. Foliage sprouts in the stone cracks on the hall floor where the Green Knight’s blood has been spilt. David Lowery’s The Green Knight is a modern reckoning with a medieval fable. It’s a haunting, confounding, surprisingly erotic fantasy epic; a confrontation between man and nature, nature and religion, man and himself. Adapted from the anonymously authored Arthurian poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Lowery’s austere yet spellbinding take on the simple 14th century legend evokes the same questions as the original work, interrogating the cost of one’s life for the sake of one’s honor when there is only certainty that they will die. “Greatness? Why is goodness not enough?” pleads Esel (Alicia Vikander), Gawain’s lover, a sex worker, whom he holds at arm’s length. But the film and Gawain’s quest carry a message that stretches far beyond the fantastical world of King Arthur, one about humanity’s inherent frailty in the face of far-reaching environmental destruction and what gods they have foolishly chosen in place of nature. Obscurities are what anchor The Green Knight as Lowery leans into the ambiguity that defines the original text and replaces it with his own equally mystifying visual interpretations. By blending his abstract sensibilities seen in 2017’s A Ghost Story with the grand fantasy of his live-action Pete’s Dragon, Lowery has crafted a breathtaking, titillating adaptation of folklore with a denouement that carries real-world weight.—Brianna Zigler