by Anton Bitel
Richard Bates Jr.’s King Knight begins with an animated picture book, and a “once upon a time”-style narration, as though we are about to watch a Disney fairytale – although the book’s final image is a map of contemporary California, as the narrator declares “sometimes the most beautiful flowers grow up in the biggest piles of shit.” Certainly there is a lot of pooh in this film, whether in burning paper bags on enemies’ doorsteps, or in the public toilet where protagonist Thorn (Bates Jr. regular Matthew Gray Gubler) has an ayahuasca-inspired revelation, or in a baby’s nappy, or as the great leveller that everyone has up their butts – including, allegedly and controversially, ‘Parisian national treasure’ Juliette Binoche. Never shown but often discussed, shit here serves both as unifier for characters of every colour and creed, gender and age, and as a signifier of Bates Jr.’s avowed trash aesthetics and irreverence. In keeping with the film’s folktale prologue, there are also witches aplenty here, but these are not of the storybook variety, but rather real witches. As Thorn puts it: “I’m not evil, I don’t sacrifice children, and the only time I participated in group sex was in college which made me so uncomfortable I couldn’t even get a boner.”
Thorn and his life companion Willow (Angela Sarafyan) lead a small coven of six other more or less like-minded wiccans (Josh Fadem, Johnny Pemberton, Andy Milonakis, Kate Comer, Nelson Franklin, Emily Chang), and despite their shared belief systems and ritual practices, much of their time is devoted to trying to figure out the sort of work and relationship problems that face us all. Yet Thorn is harbouring a deep, dark secret from his past that is about to resurface, challenging the allegiance of both Willow and the others to him. This will force Thorn to go walkabout on a quest for identity, self-knowledge and rebirth in a world where hypocrisy will turn out not to be his alone, and where a family formed is as good as one inherited – and he will have the wizard Merlin (Ray Wise), a pine cone (voiced by Aubrey Plaza) and a rock (voiced by Alice Glass) as spirit guides on his way to a confrontation both with his disapproving Christian mother Ruth (Barbara Crampton), and with his old fellow pupils from a time at high school when he was rather less of a misfit.
Like Bates Jr.’s previous features Suburban Gothic (2014) and Trash Fire (2016), King Knight concerns a difficult homecoming, as an adult male must return to the battleground of his childhood. Like his last film Tone-Deaf (2019), King Knight involves a conflict between two different cultural outlooks. And like George Armitage’s Grosse Point Blank (1997), King Knight concerns a man reluctantly attending his high school reunion. Yet unlike all of those films, and despite the focus on witches, King Knight comes with hilariously low, indeed almost non-existent stakes. There are none of the ghosts, murderous freaks or armed assassins of those other films – just a group, or groups really, of people trying to find their way through everyday problems as best they can. This is what makes it so funny and also, for all its specificities, so readily relatable. The main characters here may be pagans, and may each come with their own peculiarities – but it is the collision of this vaguely niche, entirely harmless faith with the universal banalities of life that ultimately prove so winning, making this Bates Jr.’s best-natured film to date.
“The trick is, keep making your art your way,” Merlin will advise Thorn, “without becoming bitter towards those who don’t appreciate it.” Merlin is talking specifically about the efforts that Thon puts into his small business building birdbaths (with constant, better funded rivalry from ‘Big Birdbath’), and the negative feedback that he often receives online for his product – but it is hard to escape the impression that we are also seeing a broader expression here of both artistic anxiety, and its antidote. Bates Jr., however, need not worry. Of course there will always be critics, but his vision, so singular and strange, stands up to, and out from, all the bigger-budgeted competition. Meanwhile Thorn – full name Thornton Adams – has built around him his own Ad(d)ams family, as a marginalised, mostly idealised mirror to the absurdities of the more conventional model.