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.
There is something deeply brave in A Monster Calls, director JA Bayona’s cinematic presentation of Patrick Ness’s understandably praised young adult book.
A boy of 12 – no longer a child, not yet a man, as these tales often go – finds himself trapped in a period of tremendous discomfort. Not adolescence – although that is rarely fun for anyone. Never mind the bullies who routinely beat him, or the balance of his schoolmates who don’t notice him at all.
True, these are real problems that often litter angsty pre-teen dramas. But Bayona and Ness are prepared to more closely examine something far less frequently explored because it is untidy, uncomfortable and hard to look at.
Conor’s mom is going to die, and we spend 108 minutes – brilliant, honest and profoundly sad minutes – with him as he deals with that sad reality.
A monster (Liam Neeson) – in the form of a walking yew tree – visits Conor (Lewis MacDougall) every night and tells him stories. But like everything else about this film – and about life, for that matter – the stories are messy and frustrating. They do not fit the tidy, black-and-white fables Conor wants to hear.
“Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary,” explains the monster.
Simply and beautifully, A Monster Calls articulates so many insights about adolescence and about grief.
What is so startling about A Monster Calls is now true it is to this particular time in life: the baffling behavior of adults, the suffocating aloneness, the disconcerting rage and guilt.
MacDougall steers clear of clichés with a courageous central performance. Though Sigourney Weaver’s accent is noticeably weak, supporting turns are uniformly strong.
Neeson – who narrates one of every three documentaries produced on earth – knows how to employ his voice alone to bring this thrilling beast to life.
But the real stars are Ness, who adapted his novel for the screen, and Bayona.
As he did with his breakout 2007 film The Orphanage, Bayona takes his time and lets his story take its own shape. Of course, part of that shape comes courtesy of a darkly imaginative animation department.
As splendid as the film is, minor faults stand out – the sound is sometimes garbled; sick-bed make up could be stronger; Weaver’s no Brit.
And like Spike Jonze’s underappreciated 2009 masterpiece Where the Wild Things Are, A Monster Calls is in many ways a better fit for adults than for children. It is such a refreshing and intelligent departure from traditional family fare that it’s hard to even see it as part of the same category. This poignant beauty is in a class all its own.
A staple of the horror genre – the final girl. She’s been beaten, tied up, duct taped, stabbed and generally misused, but she soldiers on. Whether through virtue, savvy, or just general badassedness, these women are not above doing what’s necessary to make it through to the sequel – even if that means putting on Jason’s dead mother’s moth-eaten sweater, because that shit had to be gamey. So today our Senior Aussie/Slasher Correspondent Cory Metcalfe joins us again to celebrate the best final girls in horror.
6. Erin (Sharni Vinson – You’re Next, 2011)
Erin is Australian, which is clearly the deciding factor here. She joins her boyfriend for a family holiday in a gorgeous vacation home deep in the woods. Which sounds worse, the first meeting with the family or “deep in the woods”? In her case, that is seriously a toss-up. The gathering is disrupted by violent, mask-wearing psychopaths, but they weren’t prepared for Erin.
Erin’s one of the few at the event who’s new to the family, so she’s hard for the villains to predict. And we find that her boyfriend – a college prof who dates his students, including Erin – doesn’t know nearly enough about her. It’s a great tale of unreasonably low expectations. It’s also, a great character because Erin is savvy, tough, and fearless.
5. Mia (Jane Levy – Evil Dead, 2013)
With the helpful pen of Oscar winner Diablo Cody (uncredited), Fede Alvarez turns all the particulars of the Evil Dead franchise on end. You can tick off so many familiar characters, moments and bits of dialog, but you can’t predict what will happen.
One of the best revisions is the character of Mia: the first to go and yet the sole survivor. She’s the damaged one, and the female who’s there without a male counterpart, which means (by horror standards), she’s the one most likely to be a number in the body count, but because of what she has endured in her life she’s able to make seriously tough decisions to survive – like tearing off her own damn arm. Nice!
Plus, it rains blood! How awesome is that?!
4. Sarah (Shauna McDonald – The Descent, 2005)
Sarah is another one who appears to be the weak link but proves her meddle. She suffers an almost unendurable tragedy in the opening scene, and a year later, when she and her friends regroup to spend a holiday together spelunking in West Virginia, she appears to be the delicate one. What she goes through in the early part of the film informs her ability to survive – as her friend Beth points out (to her and to us) when Sarah gets caught in the narrow tunnel.
She’s quiet and observant, smart and proactive – all excellent qualities once we find out that the group is not only lost inside an unmapped underground cave with no hope of being found, but that the cave already has residents, and dude! Are they creepy!
The way Sarah evolves, and the turns the character and the film take, are surprising and impressive.
Back in 1974, the “final girl” formula hadn’t been perfected. The slasher genre barely even existed, but Tobe Hooper already knew how to play with genre expectations. Yes, Sally Hardesty is the sweet one, the pretty one, the one likeliest to be the last in line for that chainsaw, but there’s a lot more to her than halter tops and bell bottoms.
Marilyn Burns mines for something primal in this performance, which is absolutely necessary if we’re to believe this girl has what it takes to survive the cannibal family. Sally’s mania is recognizable, necessary to the viewer. No one is yelling advice or judgement at the screen because who in the hell could possibly know what to do in this situation?
Unlike so many female characters in horror before her and since, Sally doesn’t whimper and rely on the villain’s conscience to save her. She negotiates, and when she realizes that’s getting her nowhere, she makes tough choices (like throwing herself out a window – because no fate could be worse than the one that clearly awaits her otherwise). In keeping with the film, Burns’s performance is gritty, unpleasant, insane and perfect.
2. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween, 1978)
In 1978, Laurie Strode became the definition of “final girl” in much the same way that Carpenter’s horror masterpiece became the definition of slasher – the blueprint for the genre. For many, Jamie Lee Curtis’s girl-next-door is the ultimate final girl.
There’s great reason for that. She distilled everything that came before and became the model for what would come after in the slasher film: virtuous, smart, self-sacrificing. But Curtis does it with more intelligence and onscreen grace than those before or (mostly) after in the slasher genre. She’s virtuous, but not judgy. She’s hot, but not overtly so. She’s also brave and smart.
The reason the character transcended genre trappings to become iconic is not the writing or the film itself, but Curtis’s performance. An effortless intelligence shines through regardless of Laurie’s actions, and it elevates the film and the genre.
1. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver – Alien, 1979)
Who could possibly push Laurie Strode to second place? Ellen Ripley could.
Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien and its many sequels is a savvy, tough, no-nonsense survivor. She is clearly the smartest member of the Nostromo crew: she understands chain of command and values quarantine regulations; she’s the first to recognize Ash (Ian Holm) as a villain; she understands the need to blow the ship; she outsmarts the predator.
Her sexuality is beside the point, which is entirely refreshing in this genre and for the role of final girl. She also changed the game for “final girls.” No longer could we accept a beautiful, sobbing mess who made ridiculous decisions, refused to fight back, and survived based entirely on her virtue. Ripley is never a victim, rarely makes an uninformed decision, and kicks all manner of ass. That’s why she survives. She’s not hoping to be saved, she’s just doing what it takes to get the F out of Dodge and keep Earth safe.