“Gardening,” Joel Edgerton muses early into Master Gardener, “is a belief in the future, that things will happen.” Every installment in Paul Schrader’s untitled contemporary trilogy, which this new film brings to a close, seems engineered to test that conviction, an unwavering optimism that amounts to an act of faith. As Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller in First Reformed (2017) and Oscar Isaac’s William Tell in The Card Counter (2021), Edgerton’s Narvel Roth is the latest addition to the director’s pantheon of “God’s lonely men,” solitary and spiritually broken drifters searching for a redemption that seems to lie forever beyond their reach. Anyone remotely familiar with Schrader’s work will find plenty of recurrent tropes and themes here, so much so that Master Gardener almost toys with self-parody (lo and behold, it opens with the filmmaker’s most notorious signature: a lone man in a room, head bent over a journal, writing and ruminating in voice-over). But these motifs do not register as facsimiles. Schrader, age 76, is now clearly making “late films,” and to be ambling into Master Gardener is to reckon with a powerful distillation of decades of craft, and an august master who undercuts his trademark asceticism with unexpected warmth.
A gardener toiling in a sprawling estate owned by Norma, a matriarch-patrician played by Sigourney Weaver, Narvel is haunted by memories that are literally carved on his skin. A former neo-Nazi who helped the FBI put his posse behind bars, his body is still tattooed with the vestiges of his older self: a flurry of swastikas and Celtic crosses he hides under long-sleeve shirts and turtlenecks—but has decided, curiously, not to get rid of. Only Norma knows his secret; she hired Narvel years back, and helped him set up camp in a shed opposite her mansion. It’s a delicate balance that’s shattered by the arrival of Norma’s biracial grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), whom the landlady asks Narvel to take as apprentice. The bond between chief horticulturist and newbie swells into a forbidden romance, over which Narvel's past hangs like a death sentence. If The Card Counter was a story about gambling on life, Master Gardener is one about trying (and failing) to bend it to one’s will. “Gardening,” Narvel muses at the end, “is the manipulation of the natural world.” And the film keeps chipping away at that belief, both thematically and visually. Sure, there are countless flowers blooming around the estate, plants and seeds sown, talks of new plots, and bigger plans to come. Yet Master Gardener exists in a state of wintry stillness. Maya and Narvel traverse a landscape of liminal spaces, an anonymous expanse of diners and motels that only underscore a certain of stasis; we’re not in the margins of a city, but in a makeshift city of margins.
It all speaks to what Schrader calls "transcendental style," which Master Gardener evokes with its unobtrusive camerawork (courtesy of Alexander Dynan) and glacial compositions (unadorned patios and living rooms that jolted me back to the barren porches of Welles’s 1968 The Immortal Story). Still, Schrader knows that these rules are most powerful when broken, and he does so in a late sequence, the film’s most dazzling, which sees Maya and Narvel drive into the night, flowers sprouting everywhere they look, a vision of ecstasy that brings to mind (without quite matching it) the Magical Mystery Tour that had Ethan Hawke and Amanda Seyfried levitate and fly across the universe in First Reformed. Narvel gawks at that mirage, laughing, screaming; he’ll never look as happy. Blood and horror aren’t as prominent here as in the rest of the triptych, which make Narvel’s journey more rarefied, and the revenge tale the film morphs into a little abstract. But to turn that into an indictment would be to play into Schrader’s hands. The catharsis the film invokes isn’t one that’s earned through violence, but with the will to break free from its endless cycle. By the end, it wasn’t the film’s monastic aura that stunned me, so much as the surprising candor it brims with, culminating with what is possibly the trilogy’s warmest finale. If Master Gardener does not possess the monumentality of First Reformed, it still reaches a sense of transcendence many titles unveiled on the Lido strove for, but couldn’t quite achieve.
One such film was Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Based on the 2012 play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter—who adapted it for the screen—the film chronicles a few days in the life of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), an English teacher suffering from extreme obesity and looking to make peace with his estranged family before his looming passing. True to its source, The Whale unspools as a chamber play. Shot by Matthew Libatique almost entirely inside Charlie’s cramped living room and kitchen, a palette of seaweed greens and peacock blues that paints the room as a putrescent fish tank, nearly every frame radiates a sense of claustrophobia and decay. Charlie’s death is a given, a question of when, not if. Laden with a digital fat suit that mixes prosthetics with CGI and turns him into the transatlantic answer to Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote, he’s saved enough money to afford a trip to the hospital, but plans to hand it all to his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he abandoned as a child to start a new life with his late boyfriend. It was his suicide that triggered Charlie’s The Big Feast-style demise. The Whale is shot through with ineluctable loss; the catharsis to which Charlie aspires is contingent on his daughter’s forgiveness, and the film moves toward a finale designed to feel almost miraculous in its transcendence.
But The Whale doesn’t earn it. Aronofsky’s tendency to amp up the pathos (cranking up Rob Simonsen’s doleful string-heavy score anytime something harrowing happens—which is to say often) only siphons it out of scenes that should scan as the film’s most lacerating. The Whale may not be a biblical tale à la Noah, or a spiritual foray in the vein of The Fountain. But religion and myth permeate it, from Charlie’s clinging onto an eighth grade Moby Dick essay like a security blanket and hobbling around like a grief-stricken Captain Ahab, to evangelical missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who barges into his flat promising salvation. There are moments when Aronofsky seems to repurpose the whole journey as the Passion of Charlie, exposing the man to all manner of verbal and physical humiliations. To be clear, it’s not the film’s portrait of obesity that’s concerning (The Whale thankfully never really paints Charlie's condition as a spectacle), nor is it the overall miserabilism (which Hunter undercuts with much-needed glimpses of irony). It’s Aronofsky’s unwillingness to let his material breathe and work toward a genuinely sweeping climax, not one that’s engineered to feel so. The catharsis called upon in The Whale is illustrative, not throbbing; it is not transcendence we experience, but the director’s laborious strain to reach it.
None of this is Fraser’s fault. His performance is the film’s beating heart, a testament to the oomph the actor can dredge up from a role that's deeply reliant on his voice and face. Perpetually couch-ridden, Fraser’s delivery has a deep, warm echo that sounds in turns reassuring and heartbreaking. It’s that voice that shears the sentimentality off of the film’s most lachrymose segments, and it's that visage, with eyes that suggest a whole lifetime of regrets, that makes Charlie’s reunion with Sink’s Ellie so affecting—if only fitfully.
Where The Whale ends up suffocating Fraser’s turn, Joanna Hogg’s The Eternal Daughter feels perfectly calibrated to match the energy of its star, a rare case of actor and film existing in a kind of symbiosis. In it, Tilda Swinton plays a daughter, Julie, and her mother, Rosalind, who travel to a former family home, a manor now converted into a spectral hotel and hidden in an unidentified stretch of the English countryside. The names ring familiar: they’re the same Honor Swinton Byrne and her-real life mother Tilda had been given in Hogg’s two-part The Souvenir, one of many ties between the two projects. The Eternal Daughter addresses several of the concerns that informed Hogg’s diptych as much as the rest of her filmography. It too pivots on a creative crisis. Julie’s a filmmaker working on a new script which, as she confides one night to the hotel’s porter Bill (Joseph Mydell)—one of the very few outsiders to intrude in what unfurls as a private parent-child chat—will be “about my mother and I.” But Julie’s riddled with self-doubt and enormous guilt; even as she needles her mum into several heartrending confessions (an untimely family death, a miscarriage) and secretly records these on her phone, she’s all too aware that this amounts to a kind of trespassing, and utterly incapable to deal with her mother’s sorrowful past.
Memory—what we choose to remember, and what we do with the things we exhume—has long been the cornerstone of Hogg’s cinema. But The Eternal Daughter takes that fascination to new extremes, marking the film as a thought-provoking departure. Ed Rutherford shoots Julie and Rosalind’s chats through a series of shot/reverse shots, with mother and daughter—save for a moment that lasts a hairsbreadth—never entirely inhabiting the same frame. It’s a choice that anticipates the film’s reveal, as devastating as it is predictable. It also dovetails with Helle le Fevre’s elliptical editing. Twenty minutes in, and time in The Eternal Daughter suddenly starts to feel elastic, malleable, porous. “Are we early,” Rosalind wonders as the two sit in a deserted dining hall, “or are we late?” It was only then—as the film’s structure began to loosen, the timeline to fall “out of joint”—that I realized what Hogg was after.
The Eternal Daughter is not all too simply a story about Julie’s creative hiccups, but one that, in a more profound sense, is about Rosalind, too. Hogg here does something far more intricate and subtle than following her stand-in as she wrestles with the weight of her mother’s recollections. She concretizes memory into the film’s fabric, which acquires the evanescent quality of a souvenir as well as a bifocal perspective. Gradually, The Eternal Daughter becomes a ghost story with two interchangeable ghosts, a diary that, as time goes on, purposely blurs its author, leaving you uncertain as to who is remembering, and who is being remembered. Hogg has often courted autobiography, and I have no way of knowing if the holiday she documents here was fished from her own family archive. But Swinton makes those mother-daughter confessions almost uncomfortable in their candidness, turning what initially seems a kind of co-dependent relationship into a moving and liberating farewell. It is one of Hogg’s most luminous creations, and one of the festival’s finest entries yet.