Fantasia presents King Knight, book tickets here.
Sometimes short is better. Over the years, I have lost track of the number of disappointing feature-length movies I have seen that could have made exquisite shorts. However, for one reason or another, directors have instead stretched their stories beyond the core idea. Sadly that is exactly how I feel about Richard Bates Jr’s latest movie. However, Richard Bates Jr is anything but predictable, and while King Knight may struggle to fill its 1 hour 18 minutes, there are also short and fleeting moments of brilliance to be found.
King Knight’s most significant flaw comes from the satirical comedy at its heart. It’s initial spark fading as we reach the midpoint of the movie. Its humour eked out as it tries to fill the narrative void that links a solid opening with a lacklustre finale. Of course, one of the things we love about Richard Bates Jr is just how polarising his movies can be. And as a result, I have no doubt King Knight will find a loyal fanbase. But, unfortunately, on this occasion, I found little to love by the time the credits rolled. My initial hope, ebbing away throughout an overly stretched runtime. For me, King Knight ultimately outstayed its welcome; the possibility of a brilliant short film sacrificed for a much longer, disappointing feature.
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Set within a small Wiccan coven where partner’s Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Willow (Angela Sarafyan) lead a small band of followers. King Knight starts from an interesting premise. After all, here we have a group of outsiders who have found solace and peace in each other’s arms. Their simple, almost make-believe life, shielded by the trees surrounding them as they practice new-age magic and reject the capitalist world. However, turmoil bubbles beneath the surface despite the peace and calm—the community battling the same insecurities and worries that plague the outside world. For example, gay couple Desmond and Neptune worry that their relationship is built on a lie. While at the same time, Percival stresses he isn’t good enough for his partner Rowena, opting to watch porn on his laptop rather than allow his wife to see his body.
Within this opening act, King Knight excels. Thorn and Willow, not only community leaders but counsellors, as each of their followers, seek support, advice and care. The communities rituals and events, bathed in satirical comedy that carries a fly on the wall aesthetic, much like the brilliant mockumentary Cult (2019). However, unlike Cult, Richard Bates Jr quickly opts to shift the narrative from its fly on the wall brilliance to a far more tried and tested comedic arc. Here, we find Thor faced with an invite to his high school reunion, Willow suddenly discovering that he was a straight-A student who played lacrosse and wore chinos. A blow that is so devastating for the community that Thorn is banished from the coven.
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As Thorn sets off into the city on his own, his destination, the reunion. The coven faces up to its own hypocrisy and double standards. At this point, King Knight throws aside many of its initial building blocks, becoming a self-absorbed quest that lacks both humour and direction. For example, it’s more than evident that Thorn will arrive at his reunion only to find himself and his beliefs once more. While at the same time, it’s also apparent the coven will come to his aid as we reach the final act. Unfortunately, the intelligence of its opening satirical humour descends into a series of childish gags.
While attempting to link themes of individuality, diversity, and difference, the story becomes lost in an ocean of competing ideas. Is Richard Bates Jr lampooning the coven? Or is he lampooning our social constructs of normality? The truth is King Knight sits uncomfortably between both. And as a result, the audience is left wondering whether they are laughing at Thorn and his followers or the capitalist society surrounding them.
This creates two films in one, the first a quasi mockumentary full of tender conversations on identity, escape and belief; the second a self-healing comedic quest. In my opinion, while the first of these would have made a sublime short movie, the second ultimately feels hollow and confused. The result is a bemusing mixed bag from Richard Bates Jr that will undoubtedly divide critics and audiences alike.
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