A man scribbles in his diary. The pages are visible by dim light, the wooden table nondescript. He takes his whisky neat and keeps his hair trimmed to military precision. On the paper, words he is unable to share, a self-imposed vow of silence acting as a twisted blend of punishment and preservation. To anyone familiar with the work of writer and director Paul Schrader, this is an easily recognizable pattern, which he employs once again in “Master Gardener,” the third and final film of an untitled trilogy preceded by 2017’s “First Reformed” and 2021’s “The Card Counter.”
The man in question is Narvel (Joel Edgerton in a career-best turn), whose calloused hands meticulously tender to all that sprawls from the soil of the Gracewood Gardens, where he acts as head gardener. The vast shrubbery is the property of austere Norma (Sigourney Weaver), the poster child for WASP-iness, just as carefully pruned as the orchids that made her estate famous. Pleated skirts and iron-pressed cardigans, a slightly lifted pinky on the teacup, and an amount of hairspray able to cause a dent in the ozone layer make up the mistress of the Gracewood Estate. When in need, she summons Narvel from the comfort of the imposing colonial house that sits at the top of the garden. Sweet Pea, she calls him, her tongue slowly reaching the roof of her mouth as she savors the nickname, a calculated combination of fondness and condescendence.
During one of these summonings, Norma informs Narvel of the impending arrival of Maya (Quintessa Swindell), her great-niece who used to spend entire summers running across the gardens he now tends to. The girl is in bad shape after the loss of her mother, says the boss – would he ever be so kind as to offer a helping hand? So Narvel does just that, welcoming the twenty-something girl into his garden, tending to her as if a seed, preparing the surroundings as if soil. He scoops up earth and teaches her how to smell fertility; he tells her about the beauty that lies not only within the flowers but within their history. They sit under a gazebo and discuss nomenclature; she listens attentively to his pronunciation of Latin words, horticulture made thrilling when framed through his passion. And, as flowers, they bloom. Nursing out of each other’s energy as if in photosynthesis, the two grow rapidly intertwined.
Alas, Romeo hides a damning secret, a biblical plague that suffocates this thriving garden of two. As with “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” the past of the protagonist is an intricate web of moral aggressions, harrowingly revealed in an empty room suddenly and brutally filled with shock. But, again, this is Schrader, a man concerned not with dishing lessons on morality but with insistently prodding at the uncomfortable until something oozes out, a surgical process that cares equally about tearing as it does about healing. What lingers is the scar, a permanent, indelible mark that earns a specific form of longevity to a Schrader film.
And yet this is the director at his tenderest. Perhaps out of a desire to at last consummate redemption onscreen – or at least what redemption looks like to Schrader – or perhaps out of a mellowness acquired with age, the nearing of death mildening the cravings for the violent impulses of reckless youth. Pain overflows but does not suffocate, bright flowers blossoming out of tarmac, the barren made bountiful. “Gardening is a belief in the future”, says Narvel, a fitting encapsulation of a film made by a man who seems to have embraced the platitude that comes with knowing the past is settled in stone, but the future is as malleable as a garden. [B+]