Monday 25 December 2023

The Current Cinema - Barrie Pattison recommends tracking down MASTER GARDENER (Paul Schrader, USA, 2022)

Master Gardener,
 the new (2022) Paul Schrader has caught up with us.  Since he surfaced with his script for Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Schrader's been one of the most challenging personalities in movies. He's impressive in person. I've watched him front a meeting. One time critic and media teacher, he can talk film and hold an audience as long as the organisers will let him. In his films, Schrader comes close to actually pulling off the stunt of fusing popular culture and high art. Hollywood directors as diverse as Orson Welles, Charles Vidor and Sam Fuller had a go at that with dodgy results.

Master Gardener kicks off with titles on a striking background of stop-motion plants blooming. We rapidly get to characters, whom some commentators find under-written. Sigourney Weaver's first appearance lets us know she's a Louisiana old money society matron from the way she summons her head gardener Joel Edgerton with demands for boosted returns on a charity sale of the flowers he supervises. She refers to her grand niece as "mixed blood." 

Joel Edgerton, Master Gardener

Edgerton is revealed more gradually in blip inserts of him as a bearded member of a black-uniformed militia and shots of him updating a log book - the historic difference between English and European gardens. Like a range of the writer-director's protagonists, his lead here deals with the extremes of experience by keeping a diary that we watch him entering at night, seated alone with a reading lamp and backed by his voice over, like Claude Laydu in Journal d'un curé de campagne. Even more than American Gigolo's re-working of Pickpocket, this is Schrader's closest approach to his hero Robert Bresson - not really a claim to my admiration. 

Quintessa Swindell, Master Gardener 

The girl turns up as twenty something Quintessa Swindell, whom Edgerton finds a suitable pupil. Master Gardener keeps on setting up expectations, which are much more mundane than the ones the film film actually delivers.  Is Esai Morales Edgerton's AA Sponsor or is Edgerton going to be the White Saviour subjugating the rebellious spirit of the girl from the minorities? Their relationship is knowing. "It's always fun to watch grown men in pastel pants out-bid each other over a flower."  

Turns out teacher and pupil both bring baggage.  Schrader likes leaving trails of breadcrumbs. His films are full of material that his followers swoop on. I'm surprised that the mixed notices this has gathered aren't on about about being banished from the garden. 

What we do get once again is shock revelation and ultra violence. I didn't think the film could survive turning the Sigourney Weaver character nasty but Our Man was testing his and the audience limits. Edgerton's amiable, stoic Travis Bickle substitute takes some getting over. They work at it, with him concerned about the fate of the jailed associates he rolled over on, or that of Weaver and even her porch dog after the attack, a not altogether subtle attempt to soften the character. 

Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Master Gardener

We note that right wing extremists, as here, and in The Blackklansman or the new Fargo series, have replaced gangsters and Communists as stock villains in Hollywood movies and  quite possibly the U.S. collective mind. 

Technical work and performances are superior, with the support etching their presence in small screen time, but words are Schrader's material. The dialogue registers in the meeting with Morales planting an imaginary gold star on Edgerton's forehead, contrasted with the apparently purposeful replacement. When the characters want sex they verbalise  it, something that some festival audiences couldn't handle. The vandalism of the garden team's loving work is not the shock that the film intends any more than the reveal on Edgerton's tattoos. Schrader can manage wide shot scenics and gives the player's effective close ups, but in the two shots he falls back on, attention drops. I won't buy the labored regeneration symbolism, particularly as visualised with the drive through the flower verge road. Probably the most telling image is Edgerton, the severe black of his work clothes broken by the red patch of his pruning shear  handles.

The conclusion with Edgerton's dismissing Weaver's use of her word ("I've known obscene") is the film's big ask. I don't find it completely satisfying but the film offers more substance than most of what we see, including Schrader's other films. It is going to stay with me. It would be a pity for it to slip by. 

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