King Knight. 2021. Directed & Written by Richard Bates, Jr.
Starring Matthew Gray Gubler, Angela Sarafyan, Andy Milonakis, Johnny Pemberton, Nelson Franklin, Josh Fadem, Swati Kapila, Kate Comer, Emily Change, Barbara Crampton, & Ray Wise.
Not Rated / 81 minutes
★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains spoilers.
You’ve been warned.
I’ve been a fan of Richard Bates, Jr. from the moment I finished watching Excision for the first time. His underrated film Trash Fire served as the basis for the first Queer Gothic column I wrote over at Patreon. I’ll forever be one of the first in line for anything new Bates does. I waited patiently to check out King Knight at Fantasia. I was extra curious because while the director-writer has always injected his own brand of awkward, odd humour into his films, this one is pure comedy without any horror. No matter what Bates does there are always strong themes present in his work. This latest film uses satire to explore the ways in which we create superficial identities and, in doing so, put up walls, often not totally because of others but just as much because of our own anxieties, insecurities, and judgements.
King Knight is about Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler), the high priest of a contemporary coven alongside the high priestess, his partner Willow (Angela Sarafyan). He’s a cool, witchy dude, even if he doesn’t, or can’t, dance. He tries his best to lead the coven with Wiccan faith and wisdom. That’s until Willow finds emails on Thorn’s computer that strip away his high priest exterior, revealing he was once—gasp!—a Prom King who was voted Most Likely to Succeed and played lacrosse. The discovery forces Thorn to go back to his 20 year high school reunion and face his old peers, as well as confront the young man he was once upon a time versus the man he’s become.
Bates’s film is actually a very fun look at real witches, demystifying the practice of Wicca even through all the awkward and hilarious comedy. Witchcraft—and Satanism though it’s not part of the story—has been wildly misrepresented not just by Christians but by mainstream media, and the horror genre’s been part of that. So it’s nice to see a filmmaker like Bates, who’s done mainly horror films, dismantle a bit of the bullshit built up around witches when a lot of witches are just free spirits. King Knight ultimately illustrates that one big reason many seek out witchcraft is because they’re spiritual, they’re just not into organised religion like Christianity. The narration from Thorn at times is like an instructional video about witchcraft, showing them celebrating Beltane and doing rituals. Then there are the riotously mundane coven meetings, taking place in Thorn and Willow’s chic modern living room rather than at night around the witching hour, dancing naked by a fire. So much of what Bates does is poke fun, using comedic silliness to deconstruct lots of silly ideas about alternative lifestyles.
One of the funniest, and smartest, aspects of King Knight is how Bates satirises white suburban identity. The exchange between Willow and Thorn after she’s uncovered his old life is pure comedy gold. He used to be the Prom King, now he’s “a member of the unholiest of Trinities” which goes against the witchy outcast identity he’s cultivated and presented to Willow. The reason I say Bates is satirising white identity is because of Echo (Emily Chang), who angrily tells Thorn he’s reduced “all Wiccans to a bunch of marginalised outcasts.” She follows up with a brief rant about identity and not taking people at face value. It’s a clear moment of Thorn, a white man, not looking past his own experience to consider the experiences of others. Aside from this moment of ignorant whiteness, Thorn’s journey is a satire on identity in general and its fabricated nature.
The inclusion of Ray Wise as Merlin is a stroke of genius. He starts the film narrating to us about “a time of great division and technological sorcery,” situating the story firmly in a space for Bates to deal with identity. It’d be easy for the writing to be reductive, honestly, but I don’t feel that it is because of the various identities represented within Thorn and Willow’s coven itself. I was thrilled to see Andy Milonakis as Percival and his character is a great take on the well-meaning male ally who’s slightly over-the-top. Percival simps so hard for his wife Rowena (Kate Comer) that he can’t even have sex with her because he finds himself terribly ugly compared to her. My favourite representation of identity is in King Knight‘s depiction of sexuality. The coven’s gay couple, Desmond (Johnny Pemberton) and Neptune (Josh Fadem), do lots of great arguing, producing the legendary line: “You‘re so much more than a hole—you‘re my whole world.” Neptune worries Desmond is still into women, only for him to later blurt out he’s realised he’s straight. All this leads to Desmond facilitating a guy’s gay awakening. The fluidity of the sexuality Bates portrays here is fun for laughs, though it’s just as important when it comes to accurate portrayals of sexuality and desire, rather than sticking with all the tired, traditional cinematic representations of sexual identity.
There’s a fantastically anti-Freudian scene concerning identity during Thorn’s pilgrimage to the reunion. He’s ingested quite a dose of ayahuasca, so he’s on a literal and figurative trip. At one point he’s talking to a pine cone (Aubrey Plaza) and a rock (Alice Glass), when he gets into a discussion of ego with the rock. He’s reminded that ego is “just an illusion.” He throws the rock at a cop (Ronnie Gene Blevins), and the cop’s knocked out before disappearing into thin air. The Freudian ego acts in accordance with the reality principle. In effect, the Freudian ego is like an inner policeman, it’s concerned with norms versus taboos, with reality and society’s morals, and so on. Whether intended or not, Bates goes against Freud here in this beautiful, foolish sequence.
“Beneath cloaks of Ralph Lauren, blood flows through their veins, just like the rest of us.” This line of dialogue from Thorn is at once a crack up and also gets at the heart of the film, particularly combined with the scene when he arrives at the big high school reunion. Thorn gets to the reunion, looking hot and witchy, where he runs into a clean cut guy, a former anarchist punk, in contrast with Thorn’s high school jock identity; they’ve, somewhat, switched places. The guy also says he’s still the same guy, just not on the outside. A scene that effortlessly goes against the instinct to judge a book by its cover. Perhaps the best scene that goes right at identity, with tongue in cheek, is when Thorn winds up in a shared Uber with a Black woman. Thorn gets chatting, asking the woman’s favourite food. They talk about lasagna and Thorn—through a story about his first time tasting it at a birthday party where they brought it out with a candle like a birthday cake—he discusses how a food looks versus how it might taste. An obvious metaphor about identity, but a significant part of the whole important life journey Thorn’s on: he’s learning not just to accept himself and the person he was as a teenager, he’s learning to accept the identities of others when they conflict with his own. He does admit, at a priceless moment, he’s “a work in progress.”
Bates’s film comes along at a needed time, when many traditional forms of identity are feeling unmoored by the long overdue visibility of repressed identities. We see so much of it in the way many white, straight people react poorly to all the racial, queer, and trans representation making its way into media. Bates touches on a bunch of these issues while generally satirising how we fabricate superficial identities based on external things and then, based on those, we reject others for arbitrary reasons. Of course the film isn’t taking on actual bigotry, otherwise it’d be too reductive. That’s why Bates jabs at many different forms of identity, whether it’s white people, witches, jocks, or Christians, making this an equal opportunity satire that tries to touch numerous bases. It works incredibly well, offering laughs alongside a story with a sense of social purpose.
The title King Knight itself wraps up the screenplay’s themes in a neat, symbolic package. The king refers to the prom king, whereas the knight of the title symbolises a pagan knight. We see this compound image, and its thematic implications, summed up in the amusing moments with Percival’s sword. Best of all is when Thorn’s being knighted with the sword on the reunion stage. This becomes a place and time where Thorn’s two identities become one for the first time as he reconciles one with the other. In that one moment, Thorn understands everyone is on the same level, that one person’s identity does not inherently have to cancel out the other, that even “Julia Binoche has poo in her butt” and “Trent Reznor flirted with ska music back in the early eighties.” In a strange, funny way, King Knight is a film about genuinely growing up and learning how to be yourself while letting others do the same.