Passages (dir. – Ira Sachs)
Passages is a frustrating movie to watch, not because it’s a failure or anything, in fact much the opposite, but because it simultaneously showcases human fallibility and provides a portrait of a very specific type of person — a person who we’ve all met before and who, if the universe is kind, exited our lives long before they could do any serious damage.
Here, this person is Tomas (Fran’s Rogowski), a demanding filmmaker who has just finished his latest project, and who has recently stepped out on his husband (Ben Whishaw) by sleeping with a woman (Adéle Exarchopoulos). He’s respectably honest about his breach of marital contract, and at first it seems like it may just be par for the course within the confines of their relationship, but as the film progresses and we learn more about Tomas, it becomes clear that his behavior is a repeating pattern, one which allows him to selfishly consume whatever he can while leaving those around him in ruins.
What gives Passages flavor is its adherence to a believable emotional framework. The players all behave as one would in the real world. It’s a lack of melodrama that gives the film shades of Olivier Assayas’ work, and the actors all step up to the challenge with aplomb. This, mixed with a refreshing frankness in the depiction of adult sexual relationships, gives this rather straightforward drama its edge. We know all of these people in real life. In fact, we’ve all probably been at least one of them, and seeing their interplay from a third-party perspective could certainly be eye opening for even a casual viewer. It all leads to a satisfying close that maintains the inherent truth of the work which helps it to stick in the memory beyond its somewhat flat visual palette.
Both Rogowski and Whishaw are fantastic. Their relationship is lived-in, and it’s as easy to see how they fell in love as it is to understand why they’re falling out of it. The duo manages the drama with perfection, going appropriately big and small without ever crossing into heightened territory. But despite their stunning performances, it’s Exarchopoulos who runs away with the film. It’s no wonder Tomas finds her Agathe so compelling. She’s an independent, attractive young woman with an air about her that casts a spell on anyone whom she graces with her presence. Seeing her get dragged along by a selfish little man is heartbreaking, but that’s ultimately part of the film’s mission. Exarchopoulos is going to be huge, so I am committing myself to learning the spelling of her name now. I’m not sleeping on it like I did with McConaughey. I didn’t stop googling the spelling of his name until after he won an Oscar.
Master Gardener (dir. – Paul Schrader)
Paul Schrader’s “fastidious-journal-writin’-guy-with-a-unique-skill-set-and-a-sordid-background” trilogy has come to a self-aware, satisfying close that’s more muted than The Card Counter, but doesn’t quite reach the refined heights of First Reformed. Through this unofficial trilogy we have one of the most prolific filmmakers in the American canon simultaneously reconciling his feelings as an aging male with the ills hardcoded into our society. With the first two works he dissected our country’s complicity in climate change, our vast torture program, and our overall inclination to expand our empire. His latest focuses the lens a bit more locally by grappling with the racism inherent to the American brand. It’s not easy stuff, but if it were, it wouldn’t interest the man who wrote Taxi Driver.
Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, the lead horticulturist for the Gracewood Estates, a property owned by a generationally wealthy dowager, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When Ms. Haverhill’s grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) gets into some trouble, a solution is offered via an apprenticeship at the gardens. Narvel is to train her in his ways, with an eye toward giving her life some structure. It all begins rather sweetly. Maya is as enthused about the position as Narvel is about sharing his tremendous horticultural knowledge, but since this is a Schrader film, one expects the hammer to fall.
And fall it does!
It would be a shame to spoil exactly how this occurs, as the modus operandi of the film is one of escalating (and quiet) surprise, but it’s worth noting that even as our character’s secrets rise to the surface, they do so with a somewhat softer edge than fans of the filmmaker would naturally expect. Still, the revelations are heavy, and it leaves one wondering how Schrader decided upon linking gardening to America’s racist cultural DNA. But this is the guy who tied gambling to our military’s torture program, so who knows? He makes it work.
Edgerton is fantastic, as expected. His Narvel is an easy character to like at first, but it requires a certain handling as we learn more about his past. To create empathy through this characterization is no small feat. This may or may not be helped by the fact that he frequently looks a lot like a Conan O’Brien. It’s the hair. Swindell, too, is tasked with some serious heavy lifting in terms of the things her character will allow — it’s a complicated role, especially in a contemporary climate. She excels at riding the line close enough to allow for introspection on the part of the viewer, and does so without cheapening Maya in any way. Exceptional stuff. Weaver, who plays the most outwardly rotten character (albeit with an inner kindness that she just cannot abide showing, goddammit), gets to have the most fun onscreen. Maybe fun isn’t the best word, but she does a wealth of slow-burn scene chewing. It’s an intense, often imposing performance that feels ripped right out of the “controversies” tab of any wealthy person’s Wikipedia.
Back when First Reformed was released, many indicated that it would be a hell of a way for Schrader, an older man, to put a cap on his tremendous career. That may be true, but for my money, Master Gardener would be a much more fitting swan song. It’s less bombastic, more insular, and it’s made with the confidence, both on screen and on the page, of a man who is very good at what he does and knows it. But just like Narvel Roth, there’s no braggadocio — his work is an exhibit for you to peruse and take from as you please.
Plus, this is Paul Schrader we’re talking about. He’s gonna make ten more movies before he leaves our world, I’m sure of it.