‘Master Gardener’ Critique: A Sullen Joel Edgerton Can’t Make Paul Schrader’s Elaborate Allegory Bloom


On paper, Paul Schrader’s last, master gardenerhas all the elements to be part of the continuity of the recent revival of the writer-director First reformed and The card counter. Another lonely man tormented by a violent past seeks to regenerate himself, writing detailed journals about the obsession – in this case, horticulture – that drives away his darkest thoughts. Joel Edgerton’s haunting central performance as former white supremacist Narvel Roth fits the essential Schrader mold of a troubled soul hiding from his demons. But little else rings true in a curiously textureless drama that misses the mark in lifeless scene after scene.

The film premiered out of competition in Venice at the same time as Schrader was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, a well-deserved honor with distinguished work dating back nearly 50 years. However, it’s one of his weakest efforts, down to his unusually conventional fairy tale resolution. While its North American arc is scheduled for the New York Film Festival, master gardener has not yet obtained distribution in the United States.

master gardener

The essential

Withers and dies.

Cinematographer Alexander Dynan brought appropriate visual austerity to First reformed and jazzy vitality to the casino settings of The card counter. But aside from the crisp, time-lapse shots of blooming flowers in the opening credits, the DP’s latest collaboration with Schrader is underwhelming.

It’s a significant drawback for a film tied to the elaborate metaphor of gardens as places where order is created from the wilderness, where manicured grounds can be a gateway to class, and where the future can bring rejuvenation, even in the face of what seems irreversible. damage. There is also the duality of gardens seen by some as beacons of diversity and by others as closed worlds to be kept pure by eliminating weeds.

Perhaps the time and location constraints of the pandemic production played a role, but the main frame, despite being the pride of its wealthy owner and groomed for a luxury charity auction of exotic flowers, looks remarkably dull. Almost the only interlude of visual interest is a carpet of CG flowers coming to life along a road and under the wheels of Narvel’s car during a romantic reveal moment.

Placed in a witness protection program after providing enough incriminating information to send a group of his fellow white power radicals to prison, Narvel found a new life and an all-consuming passion for tending the grounds of Gracewood Gardens. It seems the controlling dowager who lives in the grand old former southern plantation house, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), has spotted her green thumb and shined it, her duties steadily extending to the bedroom.

Clearly, she’s aware of her Proud Boy past given that it’s tattooed all over her torso in the form of swastikas and other symbols of hate. Either Norma thinks Narvel’s racism is completely behind him, or she’s toying with him when she asks him to take on Maya (Quintessa Swindell), her 20-year-old mixed-race great-niece, as a paid apprentice.

Maya wakes up for her first day on the job wearing a tie-dye “No Bad Vibes” t-shirt and ripped jeans, her earbuds pumping out music; she seems stunned by the decision of this distant relative, a woman she hasn’t even met since she was a child visiting the estate, to turn her into a gardener. There’s no indication in the script that Maya has her own issues, with drug issues she inherited from her late mother and an abusive relationship with the slapped dealer she sometimes works for, RG (Jared Bankens) .

It’s not Swindell’s fault that Maya instead seems extremely cold – and turns to horticulture like a natural – until she appears with a split lip and battered face. The lack of foreshadowing isn’t helped either by the fact that RG and his sidekick Sissy (Matt Mercurio) are the least threatening drug criminals to ever stink of a bad neighborhood – like they were randomly pulled. in the street and handed over the script moments before shooting. .

The confused tone of the chronically underpowered film is heightened by a score by British alt-R&B composer Devonté Hynes, whose mellow grooves feel antithetical to tension or suspense.

Writing multi-dimensional women has never been Schrader’s forte, but it’s unfortunate that Weaver, who could play this kind of cold imperiousness in his sleep, struggles with some truly awful dialogue and unconvincing conflicts that erupt You’re welcome. This is the case during his first lunch with Maya; the young woman ruffles her employer’s feathers, causing friction that later escalates when Norma senses a growing attraction between “Sweet Pea”, as she calls Narvel, and her great-niece.

Maya’s presence sets off a series of events, beginning when Narvel asks his law enforcement official (Esai Morales) to visit RG and continuing as he and Maya navigate the unlikely escape routes of the city. other from the past. It doesn’t sit well with RG, who retaliates in an awkward scene that editor Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. cuts as if it were the Baptismal Killings in The Godfather.

The film’s main strength is Edgerton’s stoic characterization. He looks the part, with Hitler’s slicked back hair and a black turtleneck under his gardening overalls. And it nails the struggle between the nightmares fueled by gun violence in its story and the enormous care it put into its release from that ugly past, even if the voiceover is a bit heavy on its scholarly botanical musings.

The idea of ​​a once outspoken racist killer who bears the proof of that hatred on his skin falling in love with a vulnerable black woman half his age should be quite provocative indeed. “Obscene,” Norma calls her once she sees Sweet Pea has moved to a new flowerbed. The mere thought of an ex-Proud Boy finding a path to redemption will piss a lot of people off, not that Schrader is new to controversy.

But the director’s essentially Catholic vision of transgression and forgiveness never builds here the dramatic truth necessary to justify a long reflection.

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