Monday, August 9, 2021

Fantasia Fest 2021 Review: KING KNIGHT

 by Patrick Bromley

The latest from Richard Bates Jr. is his most gentle movie yet.

The prospect of a new Richard Bates Jr. movie always has me excited. From his stellar debut Excision through 2019's darkly comic Tone-Deaf, Bates has proven himself to be one of the most original and exciting filmmaking voices of his generation. There is no one else quite like him, and his work has become immediately identifiable as his own -- within just a few minutes of watching, I can recognize something as being a Richard Bates Jr. film. The news that his latest, King Knight, would be having its world premiere at this year's Fantasia Fest, was cause to celebrate.

Bates' muse Matthew Gray Gubler stars once again as Thorn, who, alongside his life partner Willow (Angela Sarafyan), leads a modern-day coven of witches that includes Andy Milonokis, Kate Comer, Emily Chang, Nelson Franklin, Josh Fadem, and Johnny Pemberton. These are real-life witches, not movie witches, so they're all about loving the Earth and practicing spells, nothing dark or sinister. When Thorn gets invited to his high school reunion (a bunch of times, actually), some truths come out about him that leave the rest of his coven reeling and his future with them uncertain. It's hard out here for a witch.
I don't know exactly what I was expecting from a Richard Bates Jr. witch movie, but I know King Night wasn't really it. That's not such a bad thing. Bates has typically worked in the horror or horror-adjacent space in the past, taking on preexisting subgenres and filtering them through his distinct voice: Excision was his mad scientist movie, Suburban Gothic was his haunted house movie, Trash Fire was his...well, I still don't know what the fuck Trash Fire is. Maybe I expected more of a cult or more occult from King Night, but instead it's a sweet and gentle movie about makeshift families and people trying to do their best. There are no out and out villains in the film. Even Thorn's estranged mother, played by a scene-stealing Barbara Crampton, is eventually revealed to be doing her best, even if it's not always easy to tell.

This is my favorite aspect of King Knight: that Bates loves these characters even as he's goofing on them. There are a lot of laughs to be had at the expense of conformists and non-conformists alike, not because of their religious beliefs but because they take themselves so seriously. But like in the work of the Coen Brothers, Bates isn't simply looking down his nose at these people, scoffing at their inferiority. Some of the things they say and do might be seen as silly by you or me, but Bates always affords them dignity and humanity. We may laugh at a lot of these characters, but our hearts are with them.
Though it's among the slightest of Bates' work -- more Suburban Gothic than Excision -- King Knight remains funny and unique and sharply observed about outsiderism. 
At a time when movies feel more and more cobbled together by existing IP and shareholder demands, it feels good to see something this small and humanistic and totally original. It's probably his most straightforward comedy to date, but that suggests there's anything straightforward about it. Bates' movies are all zag, no zig. I wouldn't have it any other way.

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