From a certain point of view, individualism is the same as conformity. They might clash in their mission, but are otherwise simply a uniform someone wears in order to identify themselves. Got green hair made into spikes? Listen to antiestablishment music? Have we got the crowd for you. Wearing button-up shirts and rocking some khakis? Rule-following is ok by you? Follow the lines to the left and you’ll meet your mob. No matter how much one might struggle against it, we’re all a part of the same social machine living on a giant rock hurtling through space at millions of miles per hour. That we forget this far too often, that we are each other’s neighbor no matter the continent, leaves far too many with a lack of social responsibility, leading a few to fail to see the irony in their disdain for others. This may seem cynical and who better to roast this idea than writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. (Tone-Deaf), which he does in the earnestly comical King Knight. Beware the righteous indignation of an outcast who feels slighted when their entire philosophy is built on universal love.
Thorn and Willow (Matthew Gray Gubler and Angela Sarafyan) live a peaceful life amid nature, isolated from a world that frequently shunned them. They are not lonely, however, as they serve as the high priest and priestess for their coven, offering interpersonal council and leading revelries to celebrate their Wiccan culture. This perfect existence is shattered when a secret from Thorn’s past comes to light, setting him on a quest of personal enlightenment and his coven on a search for answers.
King Knight is far and away one of the weirder Fantasia Film Festival experiences and that is the highest compliment I can give. Bates, Jr. establishes the principles of the story clearly via a voiceover as the narrative walks us through each of the members of the coven via a drop-in late night therapy session. The problems are fun in the way that they are perfectly natural conflicts that arise in relationships and each is handled with empathy. This not only helps set the stage for the kind of leadership Thorn and Willow offer, but it’s done right as the couple is about to engage in an obviously uncomfortable conversation about their own future together. By establishing the relationship dynamics within the coven quickly, particularly as the film really gets going, enables the ensuing conflict to feel far more natural as the audience already has a sense that something’s not quite right with the couple. They are equal partners as leaders, but perhaps not as romantic partners. The question of “why?” is important and the handling is hilariously dumb, yet strangely profound: Thorn is not who he says he is. With the conflict established and the “truth” in the light, everything devolves into one ridiculous situation after another that’s treated with the highest sanctimony. Sarafyan conveys Willow’s torment and doubt like an atomic blast has gone off, when, in actuality, all that’s happened is a realization of unaddressed personal trauma. Similarly, Gubler communicates Thorn’s contrition with a sincerity that’s wholesome and pure; devoid of toxicity or exaggeration. Granted, what the story puts Thorn through is exaggerated, creating quite a bit of laughter, but the laughs are never directed at the character. This matters as the narrative goes to wild places in its efforts to examine personal doubt, self-love, forgiveness, and acceptance. None of these things are possible without exploration of personal truth.
There’s a strange contradiction that occurs when someone says they “speak their truth.” Truth is a matter of perspective, while fact is a matter of data, of evidence. Often, when people say that, they don’t want to be held accountable for what they say, as though, because they believe it, it’s indisputable and impervious from argument. Facts are cold, devoid of emotion, and are entirely free from perspective. To a degree, this describes King Knight, a comedic film whose story is bereft of outright humor thanks to the absolute seriousness of delivery from the cast. What may be funny to some can be taken as stone-cold serious to others, something which this reviewer noticed as a prevalent aspect of Bates, Jr.’s prior film Tone-Deaf and is extraordinarily heavy here. The beauty of this approach is that it’s up to the audience to define what’s funny, distinctly personal as that is. The risk is that it may not land if what the story and cast offer doesn’t connect. The fact is that King Knight is an exploration of how we’re all outcasts struggling to define ourselves in our present while continuing to be haunted by our pasts. This is universal, and yet, most are so focused on continuing the “us-versus-them” mentality that even the fringes of society possess within them the means to cast out those who break the agreed-upon rules. For me, the truth I take from the film is that we’re all better served to make peace with our demons and to be as authentic to ourselves as possible. Those who love us should still love us whether we’ve got green hair and spike, polos and khakis, or any other uniform of a people. This is the crux of King Knight: It doesn’t matter what “uniform” an individual wears if we can’t accept the whole person. Love is love and that means yourself, too.
The whole of King Knight is a tad bizarre, irreverent in some ways while undoubtedly deferential in others. The characters ascribe to the Wiccan faith, instantly making them pariahs to their local community (local students at a nearby Christian school often leave flaming bags of poop on Thorn and Willow’s doorstep). Though aspects seem played for laughs, there’s nothing disingenuous about the presentation. Put another way, while not perhaps entirely accurate in its depiction, there’s no disrespect intended. For instance, the film is cut into chapters with each transition being the presentation of a Tarot card from a figureless hand. The cards are meant to convey, for however brief the segment is, what the upcoming sequence addresses. The thing is that sometimes the cards shown have multiple meanings, like The Fool. It is shown before Thorn’s truth is exposed and one might believe that Thorn is a fool as it relates to being inexperienced, but the card also represents new beginnings, beginner’s luck, or a belief in the universe. Perhaps this is merely a means for Bates, Jr. to continue the theme of misinterpretation by using single cards with multiple meanings, subconsciously pushing the audience to decipher the card for themselves. Tarot reading is about interpretation, after all, so it wouldn’t be too far out of the realm of possibility. That said, Tarot cards are typically either pulled in a series from which to derive an answer to a question or pulled singularly to encompass a large scope. That cards are used as transitions is a melding of the two ideas, bringing forward a notion of either hollow ornamentation or one of profound meaning through the whole film.
It’s more than a few idiosyncrasies, deliberate or not, to use Wicca in this way, but a lovely way to highlight how even the more inclusive-minded of us are human and, therefore, fallible. There’s little difference between Thorn asking for guidance from the horned god (Pan) as there is from those who do the same from their respective deity. Does this allow Bates, Jr. to get a little weird, as in the ayahuasca-fueled walkabout Thorn experiences? It does and it’s pretty great from Creative JunkFood’s chaotic animated rebirth sequence to other hallucinations offering more than a few lingering surprises. All in all, the choice to use Wicca as the faith of the main characters is decidedly not a dig on the community itself and more the pervasively judgmental nature within us all. That even those of us who feel marginalized possess the ability to turn on their own due to a perceived break of trust is a healthy reminder of how broken we all kinda are and that kindness is free.
In the end, King Knight is a fun little romp whose incisive whit may be lost amid the lack of spectacle and rampant silliness. The drama is entirely interpersonal, the stakes are extraordinarily low, and yet, thanks to the cast being all-in, the message comes through loud and clear in the end. To thine own self be true, dance like nobody is watching, and don’t be a dick. There’s really nothing else to say other than that.
Screening during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more insight into the film and Angela Sarafyan’s approach, check out EoM contributor Thomas Manning’s interview with the actor.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.