Film reviews: Master Gardener | Sisu | The Little Mermaid | A Crack in the Mountain

Starring Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver, Master Gardener is a study of emotional damage which nevertheless offers a hopeful conclusion, writes Alistair Harkness
Master GardenerMaster Gardener
Master Gardener

Master Gardener (15) ****

Sisu (15) ***

The Little Mermaid (PG) **

A Crack in the Mountain (12A) ****

The world of horticulture proves surprisingly fertile ground for exploring the germination of hate in Master Gardener, writer/director Paul Schrader’s latest examination of the ease with which violence seems to flourish in haunted, emotionally damaged men. Following 2017’s remarkable First Reformed and 2021’s equally fascinating The Card Counter, the film marks the conclusion of a loose trilogy of films that consciously riff on the vengeful “God’s lonely man” trope that Schrader first explored in his script for Taxi Driver, but has updated across these newer movies by focussing more on redemption than bloody catharsis.

Joel Edgerton takes the lead as Narvel Roth, the head gardener of a grand estate owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a steely socialite whose subtly voiced prejudices suggest she longs for the days when her home was a plantation. By day Narvel tends to the elaborate grounds with a precision bordering on obsession; by night he writes in his journal about flowers, something Schrader transforms into a metaphor-heavy voice-over full of ominous intent, as in the extraordinary moment early on when Narvel informs us that “under the right conditions, seeds can last indefinitely”, just as the camera slowly glides up his shirtless body to reveal some very ideologically unsound tattoos on his back.

Hide Ad

To be any more specific here wouldn’t necessarily dilute the film’s power, but might risk ruining the wild and deliberately jarring effect Schrader achieves by juxtaposing his protagonist’s tranquil new life with past beliefs that his ultra-disciplined existence seems designed to keep at bay. With judicious use of flashback, the film gives us a clear sense of who Narvel used to be and Edgerton’s quiet and contained performance also speaks volumes, especially when his character is suddenly tasked with taking his employer’s troubled, bi-racial grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) under his wing. The latter plot-line once again echoes Taxi Driver, but this is also a weirder and more optimistic movie. As it builds towards its own violent showdown, something like hope also blossoms.


Hope is in short supply in Finnish action movie Sisu. Indeed, this entertainingly ridiculous World War Two revenge film begins with a throwback to the sort of gravel-voice narration once found in movie trailers to tell us that its untranslatable title is a form of courage that manifests itself “when all hope is lost.” In the ensuing film, “sisu” is embodied by Aatami (Jorma Tommila), a legendary commando who has turned his back on war to pan for gold in the remote planes of Lapland during the dying days of the conflict. After striking the mother lode, though, he’s forced to run the gauntlet across the wilds of Finland, pursued by a band of retreating Nazis who want his gold for themselves to facilitate their own escape to a new life as the tide turns against Hitler.

There’s no redemption for these maniacs, though. As far Aatami is concerned, the only good Nazi – as the saying goes – is a dead Nazi. Writer/director Jalmari Helander clearly feels the same, delighting in having his wonderfully weathered protagonist destroy them in inventively grisly ways. How inventive? Let’s just say that at one point Aatami avoids drowning by slicing the throat of a Nazi underwater and sucking the air out of the dying man’s lungs. Although the film feels a little desperate to court comparisons with the John Wick franchise and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, when it’s focused purely on delivering brain-off, Friday night action-movie entertainment it’s hard to resist.

The beautiful, hand-drawn 1989 animated version of The Little Mermaid revived Disney’s fortunes after a couple of decades of subpar storytelling, so it’s ironic that this new “live action” version should feel like such a creatively redundant waste of time. Close to an hour longer, but with close to two hours less entertainment, the new film is an ugly looking, badly acted, horribly scripted redo that keeps some of the same songs, but sucks the life out them with set-pieces that have none of the wit or charm of the animated version.

As Ariel, US singer Halle Bailey may have a good voice, but she doesn’t have the requisite on-screen charisma to break through Rob Marshall’s leaden direction and the uncanny valley sheen of all the CGI-augmented action. It’s a problem given how much of the plot requires her to be voiceless – though, to be fair, even Javier Bardem can’t do much with the material, beyond providing unintentional laughs as her trident-carrying merman father. Let’s hope Disney gets back to making good animated films rather than any more of these weird hybrid remakes.

The Little MermaidThe Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid

Unofficially dubbed the “eighth wonder” after being explored for the first time in 2009, Vietnam’s Hang Son Doong is the largest cave in the world. It’s also at the centre of an increasingly complicated and contentious battle between locals, developers, tourists and conservationists all trying to figure out the best way to keep the area unspoiled as more and more people want access. Alastair Evans’ documentary A Crack in the Mountain does a fantastic job of both capturing the majesty of the place itself and delving into the knotty issues surrounding its ongoing development. It’s particularly good at contextualising the latter within the history of the war in Vietnam and more recent catastrophes such as the pandemic, which has left local business owners of the nearest town Phong Nha susceptible to more ruthless economic interests coming in from elsewhere.

All films on general release from 26 May

Related topics: