Tag Archives: Joel Edgerton

In Bloom

Master Gardener

by Hope Madden

A damaged man imposes order on his life, eventually growing confident enough in this structure to try to save someone else because he cannot save himself.

That’s right. This is a Paul Schrader movie. Like most of Schrader’s best features (First Reformed, The Card Counter, all the way back to his script for Taxi Driver) Master Gardener delivers a variation on that same riff. Lucky his characters are so compelling they keep us watching.

In this case, that character – the titular gardener – is Narvel (Joel Edgerton). Narvel tells us, via his journal: Gardening is a belief in the future, that change will come in its due time.

Is Schrader growing more optimistic? Or will we grow to hope for Narvel only to witness the worst possible outcome (a la Card Counter)? Longtime fans may get a little nervous before the general moviegoer, but either way, Schrader sets a hook early.

The other element that jumps out early is the look of this film. Schrader’s gift for visual composition has never seen so exceptional a vehicle. Fitting, given the beauty of a garden. The lovely orderliness of Narvel’s garden is set against the riotous disarray that arrives in the shape of Mya (Quintessa Swindell): sloppy clothes, hair everywhere, no plans, no future. Maya doesn’t crave orderliness. Mya just is.

What Mya is not is like her Great Aunt Norma (Sigourney Weaver, letter perfect as the wealthy matriarch of the estate). Norma has arranged for Mya to apprentice on the property. She’d like Narvel, or “Sweet Pea” as she calls him, to look after the girl.

The arrival of this outsider sets wheels in motion. Narvel’s once orderly world now falls victim to his own past, drug dealers, the Feds. Edgerton’s a solid choice for the role, stoic but roiling with regret and quietly desperate for redemption. Swindell’s free spirit, tempered with the justifiable righteousness of youth, offers an excellent counterweight and Weaver outshines them all, stealing every inch of scene she’s in.

But they don’t have enough to do. Redemption feels unearned. Drug addiction is treated as too easily overcome. Most troubling is the way racism is skirted throughout the film.

“Gardening is the manipulation of the natural world, the creation of order out of disorder,” Narvel tells us. Filmmaking can provide much the same exercise. But forgiveness comes too easy for this damaged antihero, and Master Gardener feels too much like Schrader light.

Not Easy Being Green

The Green Knight

by Hope Madden

Lutes and mead, chainmail and sorcery—director David Lowery’s Camelot is just as rockin’ as ever in his trippy coming-of-age style The Green Knight.

Dev Patel stars as King Arthur’s nephew, Gawain. He’s a bit of a ne’er-do- well and it looks like he’s ne’er going to actually be knighted. But Christmas warms old Arthur’s heart and he asks the boy to take a seat of honor at the round table. When this menacing giant (think Groot, but sinister) drops in for a beheading game, Gawain offers to play so he can keep his uncle’s respect.

The story itself is more than 700 years old. Credit Lowery, who adapted the old ballad for the screen, with finding fresh intrigue in the old bones. He’s slippery with symbolism and draws wonderful performances from the ensemble.

Joel Edgerton is especially fun as The Lord, just one of many helpers and hindrances Gawain finds on his journey. Barry Keoghan is likewise wonderful playing a brash, angry scavenger. But Edgerton and Keoghan are always good. The real surprise here is Patel.

That’s not to say he’s unproven, just that his performances until now tend to rely heavily and falsely on an earnest streak. Gawain does not. Patel doesn’t shy away from or judge the character’s weakness or cowardice. Instead, he uses those very characteristics to make Gawain human.

It’s the kind of compassionate portrayal rarely depicted in an Arthurian fable, and it ensures that you care enough for the character to puzzle through his adventures with him. There’s sorcery afoot, and also psychedelic mushrooms, so who knows what’s really going on?

Here’s where Lowery really excels, though. His visual storytelling has always been his greatest strength as a director and this tale encourages his most fanciful and hypnotic visual style to date. The Green Knight is gorgeous. The color and framing are pure visual poetry. Together with this exceptional ensemble, Lowery’s created a magical realm where you believe anything could happen.

Moral Inventory

Boy Erased

by George Wolf

I don’t know if Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet are up on tennis history, but lately they’ve had a nice little Borg/McEnroe thing going. Close in both age and film credits, the last few years have seen them serve and volley with increasingly impressive performances.

Just weeks after Chalamet’s astounding turn in Beautiful Boy, Hedges joins him as a likely Oscar nominee with an intensely intimate performance in Boy Erased, a touching and vital account of one young man’s trip through “conversion therapy.”

Based on Garrard Conley’s 2016 memoir, it’s a film that also solidifies Joel Edgerton’s skills as both an actor and filmmaker, one able to balance a complicated, troubling subject with grace and understanding.

Hedges channels Conley as Jared Eamons, an Arkansas high school senior struggling with his sexual identity. Already in the Bible Belt, Jared feels even more pressure to conform from his father’s (a terrific Russel Crowe) status as a pastor and soon-to-be ordained minister in the local Baptist church. Once Jared is forced to admit his feelings for men, church elders recommend a conversion therapy program led by Mr. Sykes (Edgerton).

Amid flashbacks to Jared’s path toward confessing his feelings, Hedges makes all the confusion feel heart-breakingly real. Jared, facing a strictly conservative community and the chance his parents may disown him, enters The Refuge Program with a sincere commitment to become the person everyone else wants him to be. There is a quiet war stirring in Jared as he takes his “moral inventory”, and Hedges is able to make him a sympathetic soul screaming for release via a restrained, beautifully insightful turn.

Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, shows us Jared’s eyes being opened through gradual episodes that resist any urge to demonize. Small choices, such as the way he frames a prayer circle at the dinner table or one wonderful scene between Jared and his family doctor (the always welcome Cherry Jones) show Edgerton’s respect for the fragility of reminding us that beyond the rhetoric of hot button issues are real lives being lived.

Jared’s father and mother (Nicole Kidman, also award-worthy) are not portrayed as villains, but rather as parents making choices based on the information they had at the time. The ways that both the information and the parents change acknowledges the religion/science debate without soapboxes, keeping the film’s viewpoint wisely intimate.

It is precisely this intimacy that fuels the film’s resonance, as one family’s story becomes a vessel for greater understanding. That’s no small achievement, and Boy Erased is no small triumph.

The Trouble With Harry


by George Wolf

Gringo roll call: Theron! Edgerton! Oyelowo! Seyfried! Copley! Newton! Even M.J.’s daughter, Paris (better call her Miss Jackson, in case we get nasty).

The point is, there’s talent a ‘plenty here. The question is why?

Director Nash Edgerton (Joel’s brother) never fully commits to either madcap romp or suspenseful manhunt, settling for black comedy that’s never really dark or funny, and a tired, “wrong man” adventure propped up by tired cliches.

David Oyelowo gives it is all as Harold, a pharmaceutical exec who accompanies his bosses (Joel Edgerton and Charlize Theron) on a business trip south of the border. The deal, like most everyone around Harold, is shady, and quickly dissolves into mistaken identities, multiple kidnappings, and one drug lord who will kill you for bad mouthing the Beatles.

That drug lord goes by the name “Black Panther,” a minor point that only reinforces how forgettable this film is. The script, from Anthony Tambakis (Warrior) and Matthew Stone (Intolerable Cruelty) offers scattershot bits of promise, but nothing that provides any solid clue to why all these people signed on.

Maybe they all had a good time. Great, but Gringo runs in many directions without ending up anywhere worthwhile, and you’re left wondering just what the point was anyway.


Sexy Collusion

Red Sparrow

by Hope Madden

Jennifer Lawrence could use a hit.

Though few could throw shade at the film star’s talent—one Oscar and two nominations in a three year span!—she’s made a series of critical and commercial missteps. The slide began with David O. Russell’s weak biopic Joy, then wallowed in all that can be wrong with a superhero movie in X-Men: Apocalypse before hurtling through space with the underwhelming Passengers, and ending with the flaming disaster (though bold and compelling) mother!

Can her sexy espionage thriller Red Sparrow turn that luck around? Doesn’t seem likely, does it? I mean, come on—you’ve seen the trailer.

And yet, surprisingly enough, the film has some style, some queasying violence and unrepentant perversions, and Jennifer Lawrence. It could be worse.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a Bolshoi ballerina (yeah, right) who breaks the wrong leg, is related to the wrong uncle (the always welcome Matthias Schoenaerts), makes the wrong compromise and winds up in a nasty state.

Writer Justin Haythe, working from Jason Matthews’s novel, has never written a film worth seeing. This is no masterpiece, but it is the kind of material director Francis Lawrence (no relation) manages well.

The helmsman of the last three Hunger Games films knows how to take what amounts to dreary, ugly, mean tales of human bondage and slick them up with a plucky female lead, good costuming, a talented supporting cast and smooth camera movement.

The ugly, demeaning sexuality, though, that’s mostly just Red Sparrow.

Lawrence’s steely, emotionless mask of an expression suits this performance even more perfectly than it did her Hunger Games franchise, but the lacking chemistry between the star and her co-stars keeps the film from ever reaching the sexy thrills it hopes to achieve.

Joel Edgerton, playing the good-hearted American, can’t generate any believable connection with Lawrence’s Russian sparrow, and the crissing and crossing of teams and tales and sides and stories feel forever superficial and convenient.

It might at least be a fun time waster if Charlize Theron hadn’t done that better with last year’s Atomic Blonde.

So, no, this won’t be the film to point Jen’s career back toward true north. But she does have another X-Men coming up. That’s sure to be a winner, right?

I Don’t Want to Go Out: Week of September 11

The biggest turd of the summer is finally stinking up homes this week, but there are two truly outstanding indies releasing this week that you should watch instead. Because The Mummy‘s not even “this is so bad I’ll just watch it at home and enjoy it ironically” bad. It’s the bad kind of bad.

Click the film title for the full review.

It Comes at Night

Beatriz at Dinner

The Mummy

Fear Itself

It Comes at Night

by George Wolf

Two years ago, Krisha served as a stunning feature debut for writer/director Trey Edward Shults. Gripping in the intimate nature of its truths, it heralded Shults as a new filmmaker with tremendous potential.

That potential is realized with It Comes at Night.

He may have bigger stars and a larger budget this time out, but Shults shows storytelling instincts that are already well-seasoned. Resisting any pressures to mainstream his scope and “go bigger,” Shults get even more intimate. While Krisha showed a very tangible threat infecting a family, It Comes at Night is more abstract, an intensely personal take on fear and paranoia.

Deep in the woods, Paul (Joel Edgerton, solid as always), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) have established a cautious existence in the face of a worldwide plague. They have boarded their windows, secured their doors, and enacted a very strict set of rules for survival.

At the top of that list: do not go out at night.

This rigid domestic order is tested when the desperate Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks in. He has a wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and toddler to protect, and is offering all they have in exchange for refuge.

It Comes at Night has been on horror fans’ radar for some time, but it will test the patience of those satisfied with cheap jump scares or spoon-fed explanations. As with Krisha, Shults builds the film around his own experiences, using Travis to often mirror how Shults himself dealt with a death in the family. Through Travis’s nightmares, we are kept off balance, questioning just what is real and who can be trusted.

Shults explores the confines of the house with a fluid camera and lush cinematography, slyly creating an effective sense of separation between the occupants and the dangers outside.

But what are those dangers, and how much of the soul might one offer up to placate fear itself?

In asking those unsettling questions, It Comes at Night becomes a truly chilling exploration of human frailty.


What’s In a Name?


by Hope Madden

Like Barry Jenkins’s miraculous Moonlight, the new film from Jeff Nichols offers a needed, optimistic reminder that progress is not dead and the ugliness of hatred need not win – even when it looks like it has already won.

Like so many of Nichols’s films – his 2012 Huck Finn-esque Mud, in particular – Loving boasts an intimate, Southern storyteller’s lilt. Here the writer/director quietly shares the triumphant story of the couple whose Supreme Court case made interracial marriage legal in the US.

In 1958, Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) married. Richard was savvy enough to have the ceremony conducted in D.C., but upon returning to their rural Virginia home, the two were arrested for breaking the state’s anti-miscegenation laws.

What follows, with admirable restraint, is a look at the couple’s struggle to live as they want, where they want.

Nichols conducts the effort with an understatement that gives certain small moments and images true power. Never splashy and far from preachy, Loving sits with an otherwise ordinary family and lets their very normalcy speak volumes about the misguided hate that would separate them.

His is a beautiful film anchored by Negga’s graceful, modest turn. Though legalizing the union was Richard’s idea – formally marrying and hanging the framed license in their home – it’s Mildred who is unbending, and in Negga’s hands, this will spills over with compassion and hope.

Edgerton’s Richard is a tougher nut. A man of few words, Richard would just as soon avoid the flashy lawyers and press that draws attention to his life. He just wants everyone to leave his family alone and, in return, his family won’t bother anyone.

Nichols may dial the drama down a bit too much, truth be told. Though the outcome of the court case hangs over the last reel like a dark cloud, the true, national impact of this victory and the potentially dire consequences of a defeat are barely whispered.

The approach does give the film a lovely intimacy, though. And it reminds us that progress, though hard-won and often ugly in its pursuit, can be won.


Everlovin’ Light

Midnight Special

by Hope Madden

Get to know Jeff Nichols. The Arkansas native is batting 1000, writing and directing among the most beautiful and compelling American films being made. His latest, Midnight Special, is no different. But then again, it is very, very different.

You should know as little as possible going into this film because Nichols is the master of slow reveal, pulling you into a situation and exploiting your preconceived notions until you are wonderfully bewildered by the path the story takes.

Suffice it to say, Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon, as well as Joel Edgerton, are armed men in a seedy motel. They have a child in tow (Jaeden Lieberher – wonderful). Local news casts a dark image of the trio, but there’s also a Waco-esque religious community looking for the boy, not to mention the FBI. So, what the hell is going on?

Nichols knows, and he invites your curiosity as he upends expectations. The film toys with the clash between logic and the supernatural, not unlike the themes of Nichols’s masterpiece Take Shelter (also starring a magnificent Shannon). While moments of Midnight Special will feel more reminiscent of memorable films in the SciFi vein, what this filmmaker does with his subject is beautifully novel.

The film, like all of Nichols’s work, is deeply rooted in traditions and atmosphere specific to the American South, and the filmmaker boasts a deep and easy skill as a storyteller. He’s also truly gifted with casting.

Lieberher, who showed amazing natural talent in 2014’s St. Vincent, again offers a beautifully restrained central figure. Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst are likewise wonderful, both turning in nuanced performances that reflect Nichols’s uncanny way of dealing with the extraordinary in the most naturalistic way.

But Michael Shannon, a remarkable talent no matter what film he graces, anchors the film with a heartbreaking, award-worthy performance.

Midnight Special is just another gem of a film that allows Nichols and his extraordinary cast to find exceptional moments in both the outlandish and the terribly mundane, and that’s probably the skill that sets this filmmaker above nearly anyone else working today. He sees beyond expectations and asks you to do it, too.

You should.


A Bloody Communion

Black Mass

by Hope Madden

Johnny Depp is a remarkable talent whose film choices can be frustrating. Who’s to complain, just because he often buries his unique take on human foibles underneath quirky caricatures in wigs and eyeliner or a handlebar moustache?

I am – but not today. In Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, Depp may undergo a physical transformation, but it’s his skill and authenticity that leave an impression.

In this biopic, Depp plays Southie mob king James “Whitey” Bulger, a “ripened psychopath” who strikes a sweet deal with neighborhood pal turned FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).

Front to back, Black Mass spills over with reminders of other films – in particular, The Departed and, thanks in part to the outstanding soundtrack, American Hustle. How could it avoid comparisons? How many new ways are there to tell a story about dodgy criminal/FBI alliances or the Irish mob in Boston?

Wisely, Cooper’s focus is on the complex relationship between Bulger and Connolly. Edgerton handles his character arc, from misguided idealist to blindly loyal accomplice, with subtlety, but this is Depp’s movie.

Depp’s nuanced evolution from friendly neighborhood sociopath to cruel monster leaves chills. He can turn on a dime, as he does in the now required Joe Pesci-esque episode. (Just substitute “funny how?” with “family recipe.”) But the more powerful scenes are the ones that sneak up on you – a situation with a colleague’s step daughter, or Bulger’s moments alone with Connolly’s wife.

The balance of the cast manages to keep pace with Depp’s forbidding performance – Rory Cochrane, Corey Stoll, Dakota Johnson, Juno Temple, and Peter Sarsgaard are all particularly impressive in small roles.

For all the truly fine performances, Cooper’s somber effort can’t seem to define itself. There are flashes – frames resembling a cross between a crime scene photo and an old picture postcard; or individual, eerily crafted moments – but the effort on the whole limits itself to by-the-numbers storytelling.

Depp, on the other hand, sporting vampiric blue contacts that emphasize Bulger’s eviscerating contempt and barely restrained violence, excels. Black Mass may not be quite able to separate itself from the pack, but Depp’s performance will leave a mark.