Spoiler alert! This story details the ending of "The Green Knight." Stop reading now if you haven't seen it yet and don't want to know.
"The Green Knight" is a real head trip.
David Lowery's stylish retelling (in theaters now) of the anonymously written, 14th-century poem "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" follows a cocky young man named Gawain (Dev Patel) who engages in a dangerous game with a treelike creature called the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson). After slicing off the Green Knight's head in a challenge at King Arthur's (Sean Harris) court, Gawain must seek out the mythical horseman one year later to receive the same blow in return.
Over the course of his journey, Gawain encounters a series of characters – a foreboding fox, a headless saint (Erin Kellyman), and an unsettling pair of swingers (Alicia Vikander and Joel Edgerton) – who test his values. Does he want to become a knight for the glory or the code of chivalry? And if he were to turn back, would it matter if he lost his integrity as long as he still had his head?
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Lowery pulls a stunning twist in the film's final 10 minutes. Gawain finds the Green Knight in the forest and patiently waits for the monster to awake. But just as the Green Knight raises his ax to lop off his head, Gawain runs home, where Arthur crowns him king. Gawain knows he is alive only because of his cowardice, and goes on to lead a miserable life where he shuns his true love and watches his son die in battle. His kingdom collapses, his family and subjects abandon him, and he dies alone.
Then the film cuts back to the forest, where we learn that horrible alternate timeline was just in his imagination. "I'm ready. I'm ready now," says Gawain, before the Green Knight bellows "off with your head" and the end credits roll.
"My hope is that you leave with a smile on your face and the feeling that it is truly a happy ending," Lowery says. "I wanted there to be a sense that this character has arrived at the place he needs to be in, regardless of what happens to him after the film cuts to black."
The director has his interpretation of what happens immediately after, "but I didn't want to impose my own idea because it doesn't matter. He's going to die someday. Maybe he got his head chopped off in that moment. Maybe he dies of old age later in life. But he will die. We all die."
"What's important is that we know we are becoming the best we can be; that we are living our lives with goodness and integrity, with a sense of righteousness that is not defined by greatness or legacy, but by our own personal sense of worth."
The dark montage of Gawain's potential future was part of what drew Patel to the film, showing how Gawain could never be happy or fulfilled knowing he was a dishonest man.
"Everything he hoped and dreamed his life would be, he got," Patel says. "But you see someone who's got a moral framework really crumble under that (deceit)."
Much of the film is about coming to terms with one's mortality – a reality Gawain says he could never prepare for. But he seems at peace with death in the movie's last moments: Just as the Green Knight is set to behead him, Gawain tells him to wait as he removes a green belt, which was said to have magical powers that would keep him safe.
"That girdle is representing his own cowardice," Patel says. "When he decides to take it off, you finally see that he's come of age."
"Green Knight" made Patel think about larger themes of honor and legacy, and how those apply to his own life.
"I could relate to that in my journey as an actor," Patel says. "Ambition is a consuming force, so the film explores how futile that can be at times. Instead of striving for greatness, why don't you strive for goodness? What means more in the scale of things?"
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Green Knight' ending: Dev Patel on that shocking twist (spoilers!)