Can a film have good writing and abysmal dialogue? Paul Schrader finds out the hard way. The septuagenarian filmmaker knows his way around a script and how to craft a Bressonian character. The third movie in his Guilty Catholic Man in a Room tetralogy — the next film concerns a Nurse — accomplishes this aggravating feat of being a well-written bad script.
Call it Third Reformed, Master Gardener circles all of the same themes as his last two movies. This time, he is interested in a Horticulturist with Nazi tattoos played by a brooding Joel Edgerton who takes a young woman played by Quintessa Swindell under his wing and shows her about gardening. They work in the garden of a character played by Sigourney Weaver, who can even find her way around this dialogue.
Watching it twice for this review, the film did not reveal any more conclusive answers about itself the second time, but did reveal the shape of the work — one divided between normative redemption storytelling and caustic slow cinema. It is my continued impression that neither work and both sides negate the other part. The film wants formalism but also a simple moral story. It is not effectively formal and when it goes to save its characters, it seems to go against what it has told us about them.
There is some clear artistic catharsis in these themes. You can see the filmmaker continuing to work at the same ideas that have propelled his late-era work so far. This time, there is just not enough there to save it. Where The Card Counter dangles perilously on the cliff of prescriptive storytelling, Master Gardener plummets off full-force. When the character reveals their Nazi tattoos it’s embarrassing. When they make love it’s awkward and hard to watch. When they talk about the garden it feels like the same forced theming as the last two movies, but the box those fit in longer suits this story. It needs to go somewhere else and is too trapped by the convictions of its author who knows too much to make this bad of a script.
It’s a kind of miserable miss, wherein you see the possibility of a good outcome. In some of the talk about gardening and the cultivation of the true inner-self, we see some theme that could play in an exalted transcendental way, like the same slow and good cinema the director has always studied and modeled after. We do not get there, this time, and we’re left with something more spurious, half a good movie and half of something else that does not fit the same overseeing purpose. With nothing to prove, there is nothing devastating about a miss, it’s just clear in what way the movie can be better, because Paul Schrader has made the good version of this movie at least twice before.