Film Journal 2023: Master Gardener

Film Journal 2023: Master Gardener
Directed by Paul Schrader

Parallels the plot and structure of Schraders most recent films, almost to the point where you could map whole sequences from one film on to another and have it work seamlessly within that story. There is the man trying to leave a complicated past behind, a journal operating as a narrator, the unexpected relationship that proves redemption and forgivness is something this man still needs to find, the moment of transcendence that breaks the otherwise grounded narrative, ect ect. This is, of course, an intentional draw of what has been billed as “the man in the room” trilogy. But the thematic and structural interplay between the three films definitely makes itself known in a stand alone viewing, for better or for worse.

The story is slightly more optimistic than his previous efforts, which might be where I would be interested in a repeat viewing just to see the film in light of its predecessors. That wasn’t top of mind here for me in my initial viewing, so I am wondering if noting a trajectory between these three stories in terms of Schraders interest in using personal stories to say something about America at large, past and present (here the personal maps on to the subject of racism) might actually help me appreciate what he is doing on a macro level. I some ways this third film can’t help but be more hopeful given the whole gardening metaphor. It forecasts the essential theme of the tended flowers in the manure growing and thriving and being rejuvenated with the seasons and necessary hands that help us grow and mend in to new life. The film adds a wrinkle with the unexpected friendship, a young woman dealing with the muck of her own life being brought in to work in the garden as a way of therapy and recovery and investment. This provides some decent subtext in terms of the connective threads that ultimately bind her and the gardner togther in the mud of their perspective lives.

Sadly though, this latest project by Schrader can’t seem to rise to the occasion. There is a great idea here left to be explored, and further gets explored in his previous films with far more poignancy, but the plot itself feels disjointed, the editing is a mess, and by the time it reaches the end it feels like the journey itself is being held together by a thin thread. The fact that all of this simply hyperlinks back to much better films, particularly with The Card Counter and First Reformed, just underscores the film’s shortcomings.

The flavors and stylings that drive Schraders work are nevertheless here, and make it worth at least an initial viewing. Quintessa Swindell is particularly good as an up and coming star in her own right. Ridiculously charming and captivating to watch, she shows a great deal of control over and investment in her craft. Being cast alongside Joel Edgerton, who despite feeling constrained by the disjointed nature of the script manages to carve out something of substance, provides the necessary chemistry needed to at least allow us to feel what this story was going for.

Disappointing given my love for Schrader. But truth be told, even his worst efforts can mine something from the mess. Perhaps, at the very least, fitting for the themes in this film

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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