Master Gardener

MASTER GARDENER is the latest from Paul Schrader, who I consider to be on a late career roll between FIRST REFORMED and THE CARD COUNTER. This one is thematically related to those, and Schrader has called the three of them his unintentional “Lonely Man Trilogy,” but the template goes all the way back to TAXI DRIVER and has been loosely repeated over and over again throughout his filmography. Which is one of the things I love about him.

This time the journal-writing weirdo narrator is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton, JANE GOT A GUN), the fastidious horticulturalist in charge of Gracewood Gardens, an estate in Louisiana (filmed at a former plantation). He’s very loyal to his aging heiress boss, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, ABDUCTION) – including having sex with her on demand – so he does as she says when she instructs him to take on her troubled grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, BLACK ADAM) as an apprentice.

(According to Wikipedia, Swindell uses they/he pronouns, but the character doesn’t.)

It’s not an odd request on its face, but Norma makes it weird – awkwardly referring to Maya’s mixed race, implying judgmental things about her and her mother, then avoiding ever seeing or talking to the grand niece after she’s arrived. Maya’s not exactly enthusiastic about the job, it seems like she’s being forced into this as a remedial thing, but she’s open-minded and earns her place quickly. When he teaches her to pick up a handful of dirt and smell it, get it on her face, she really does it, and seems to enjoy it. She passes the gardener test.

Much of the tension and complications here come from Narvel’s secret past, which I had heard as the premise before seeing it, but I’m going to mark this a SPOILER because it might work better as a surprise. When he first takes his clothes off for Norma we see that his body is covered in Nazi and white supremacist tattoos. She wants to see them, she gets off on them, but as far as we can see he is a changed man. After killing for a neo-nazi mentor he turned state’s evidence, went into witness protection, got sober, and dedicated himself to gardening, which he tells us all about in nerdy detail. He talks not only about the process, but the history of different kinds of gardens, imbuing different traditions with meaning. It’s partly to show his obsession, but some of it is actually pretty interesting in an “I never would’ve thought of it like that” sort of way. And he needs to believe that if a garden can grow back every season then a person can too.

Of course, trouble is coming. He tries to intervene with Maya’s drug problem and abuse from her drug dealer R.G. (Jared Bankens, “Junkie,” JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK). Also she sees his tattoos. The most uncomfortable part of the movie, and the part that could be dismissed as a gross male fantasy, is that Maya starts up a relationship with him and only briefly puts it on pause after the revelation of his racist past. I think your response to this one may depend on how much benefit of the doubt you’re willing to give Schrader, and how you weigh the importance of symbolism vs. plausibility.

At first Narvel tries to do the right thing with this drug dealer situation. He asks for help from his case officer Oscar (Esai Morales, NEVER BACK DOWN: NO SURRENDER), who considers him a model ex-offender, but also hasn’t forgotten what his offense was. Oscar retires without following up, so like so many of the Schrader protagonists, Narvel goes over the edge into violence, making us queasy by mixing the appeal of a revenge movie structure with very muddled motives. We all love a “you jerks messed with the wrong guy” scenario, but this one’s particular set of skills come from his past as a neo nazi. And you gotta wonder how much he loved repeating a racial slur to Sissy (Matt Mercurio, HELL FEST) or knocking out a random Black friend in front of R.G.’s house.

This is on VOD now, but I saw it in a theater. I was able to see THE CARD COUNTER at one of the downtown multiplexes, but this was a more limited release, only playing at a place I hadn’t been to in years. But it was the week FAST X came out and I liked the idea of seeing them both at their first showings. ‘Cause I like both kinds. An employee at the theater asked me what MASTER GARDENER was, said none of them had heard of it. There were four other people in the theater, one loudly sighing her disapproval throughout. Could she have wound up here without knowing Schrader’s whole deal? Or maybe she’s a fan, just can’t stand this one. That would make sense. Honestly I was most surprised by a couple things she didn’t sigh at.

Myself, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of some of those sigh-worthy turns of the story, and that’s okay, even if it makes me like it less than those previous two Schraders. It’s certainly a movie I found mesmerizing to watch, thanks in part to the dreamy, synthy score by Devonté Hynes (QUEEN & SLIM), also known as Blood Orange. In the opening his music reminded me of Stevie Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants, other times it’s much more modern. Man, I don’t know how old man Schrader hooks up with so many interesting musicians, always so different from each other.

As I expected it’s a powerhouse performance from Edgerton, honestly one of my favorite working actors, though most of his best seem to come and go without much recognition. If you haven’t seen LOVING you may not realize how amazing he is. Of course Weaver is also outstanding playing way more of an uptight asshole than she usually plays, and relative newcomer Swindell holds their own with these two levels of veterans.

I appreciate MASTER GARDENER best as a piece of the larger body of work rather than as a movie on its own. The way Schrader talks about it, it may be his last take on his favorite format, so it’s very significant how it differs from previous iterations. In a bubble you may think “What the fuck, this story has a happy ending?,” but in comparison to others you think, “Whoah… he gave it a happy ending this time!”

It’s definitely puzzling. Does the sequence where flowers pop up all around them mean everything else that follows is imaginary too? I don’t know. Left to my own interpretation, the ending seems like a bit of a provocation. Narvel announces that he and Maya are getting married; Nora’s objection is clearly based in her racism, so it’s kinda like Schrader’s daring you to raise any other possible objections you might have to a middle aged murderer with a giant swastika tattoo marrying a woman barely half his age who he used to mentor and who is in recovery.

But from the sounds of it Schrader really means it as optimism, a fantasy about change and redemption and love and shit. In a recent very good interview on WTF, he contrasted it with TAXI DRIVER:

“MASTER GARDENER is more of a fable saying ‘What if a person could in fact change? What if it were possible for a person to change?’”

“It isn’t so much ‘this is what’s happening,’ it’s ‘what if this could happen?’”

That could explain the lack of specificity on Narvel’s past. He looks like a skinhead, the flashbacks seem like some kind of survivalist militia, in interviews Schrader calls him a Proud Boy. It’s not a realistic portrayal, just shorthand for the worst thing you could be, the most shameful thing to have in your past, and how beautiful it would be if that could be overcome. That also fits with what Narvel tells Maya about removing the tattoos. He found out that he could, but decided he couldn’t erase his past. Rather than hiding his ugliness, he stands in front of her and shows it all to her, and she somehow forgives him.

I mean, yeah. There’s some of the ol’ privilege involved in being able to find that beautiful. But for what it’s worth I think Schrader really means it, because of what he says about the lyrics of the end credits song, “Space and Time,” originally by S.G. Goodman, covered by Mereba:

“There’s a song at the ending… ‘I don’t want to leave this world until I say I love you.’ I said in Venice, I used to be a young writer who believed I do not want to leave this world until I say ‘fuck you.’ Now I’m an old director who believes I do not want to leave this world until I say ‘I love you.’”

Okay, I love you too, Mr. Schrader. Flaws and all. Maya’s right, though – get rid of those tattoos.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 26th, 2023 at 7:15 am and is filed under Reviews, Crime, Drama, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

8 Responses to “Master Gardener”

  1. I very much enjoy the film of Paul Schrader (ha ha, see what I did there?) and am looking forward to checking this one out.

  2. This sounds great.

    An unmissable Edgerton film is The Stranger, an outstanding Aussie undercover cop film with Sean Harris. It’s still on Netflix, I think.

    Check it out+

  3. This “Lonely Man” trilogy has been outstanding, in my opinion. First Reformed is my fave of the three, but they’ve all been powerful and challenging films. It’s a shame this one seems to be slipping by with little fanfare, but maybe that’s to be expected, considering the neo-Nazi subject matter.

  4. I actually was set to see this on the Monday after it opened (I work weekends), but the Monday morning talk was so overwhelmingly “I’m a huge fan of Paul Schrader, and I thought it was absolutely terrible” that I skipped it…

  5. I saw this opening day in NY. Schrader was supposed to be there for a Q&A but bowed out. Edgerton was there though, and he was also deeply skeptical about the ending. He questioned whether some people were beyond redemption. I thought it was fine but I found the horticultural monologues more memorable than the plot, which kind of petered out.

  6. Gary, thanks for recommending THE STRANGER – hadn’t heard of it before your comment. Watched it yesterday – it’s excellent!!

  7. Have you read QT’s Cinema Speculation? He spends a good portion of the book discussing Schrader’s work and his love of THE SEARCHERS. It’s was interesting hearing Quentin break down how TAXI DRIVER, HARD CORE and to some degree ROLLING THUNDER are all sort of remakes or riffs on THE SEACHERS or exploring the same themes. I still need to watch this one but could see how this one falls into that category.

  8. Man, I hate the “was the ending of this movie a dream?” theory that seems to pop up so often, but this is the one time I feel like there is a legitimate reading for it. Maya’s sudden change of heart and invisible nipples, the drive with the magical flowers, the happy ending, etc. I guess it’s about seeds and growth and renewal, but feels like fantasy.

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