Director: Paul Schrader
Stars: Quintessa Swindell, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver
A white saviour narrative in our present era is a contentious thing to proffer forward. Now make said saviour a (recovering?) white supremacist and Paul Schrader’s latest comes close to feeling transgressive, even wantonly provocative. Between ardent fans of his work and ardent fans of his online presence, Schrader has developed something of a cult following in the internet age. One can’t help but feel as though Master Gardener was in part germinated to deliberately court rancour on the internet. Schrader slyly stoking The Discourse from the sidelines.
Division is everywhere in this loose trilogy capper (following First Reformed and The Card Counter). Even the opening titles are pointedly bisected. Text on one side, time-lapsed flowers blooming on the other. The text of Schrader’s latest dark drama following a self-isolating male figure concerns Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), the tight-lipped supervisor of all horticultural concerns at Gracewood Gardens, a Louisiana botanical gardens on the site of a former plantation house where its owner, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), resides.
Norma assigns her head employee and sometime-lover Narvel a new apprentice; her biracial great niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), brought back into the fold so that the grounds can be passed on by blood. Maya – dogged by a drug habit and slightly ambivalent to the profession she has been designated – shows both curiosity and affection for Narvel, some 30 years her senior. What she doesn’t know – and which Schrader parcels out to us judiciously – is the man’s shady past as a born-and-bred Neo Nazi. His torso, shoulders and arms which are kept hidden from view are a veritable road-map of hateful tattoos. Norma seems to be actively aroused by the branding that covers Narvel’s body, suggestive of her own politics. His own position, meanwhile, is cloaked in secrecy. He may have abandoned that way of life, but where do his present philosophies lie? He’s reticent to allow Maya to see these markings for good reason, but is that indicative of shame, of growth, of change?
Schrader makes answering that line of inquiry difficult. For the most part Master Gardener reveals a man looking to leave a violent way of life behind, and is eager to frame the relationship between Narvel and Maya as genuinely loving, even as it queasily blurs a line between the romantic and patriarchal. But listen to his narrated journal entries (he’s a Schrader protagonist, of course he keeps a journal) and you’ll note how chillingly Narvel’s pleasure with flowers derives from controlling, breeding, engendering a kind of manufactured perfection that correlates chillingly with Nazi propaganda.
Throughout we’re tested as to where our allegiances with this character lie. To what degree do we sympathise with Schrader’s devil, and to what extent can he be redeemed? How close should we get? Edgerton is as good as he’s ever been. Terse, protective, committed to these shades of grey. For her part, Swindell impresses greatly, even as Schrader’s script challenges her – and us – with a few leaps that viewers may find surprising. Try as one might, the romance between the two feels unlikely. Norma chides that Narvel is manifesting his own Humbert Humbert narrative. While Maya is in her early-’20s, the disparity between the two feels conspicuous. A hurdle that Master Gardener struggles to vault.
Accept the pairing, however, and there’s much to appreciate here – in spite of and because of Schrader’s gall. 40+ years of filmmaking behind him, Master Gardener evidences a clear, clean confidence in-keeping with the other two entries in this loose trilogy. He opts for a far wider frame this time out, eschewing the claustrophobia of First Reformed particularly. In this choice Schrader points toward a wider sense of optimism for Narvel; the capacity for evolution and, ultimately, for some attainable sense of peace and tranquillity. It is up to us to wrestle with whether this is deserved. In the age of Cancel Culture, what can be forgiven? What constitutes redemption?
The conditions and situation for Maya at Gracewood seem icily considered. When Norma advises that she is not to leave, one can’t help but be reminded of the institutional history of the grounds, and the connotations of slave and owner layover the exchange like a hologram. Narvel’s split loyalties between these two women can be attributed to the past and future playing tug of war with his soul. Overscoring all of this is Devonté Hynes’ mesmerising set of synthetic music cues, which prick Master Gardener with a heightened sense of reality that – along with some crepuscular lighting – almost attain the ethereal menace of Nicolas Winding Refn.
Narratives that tilt toward the ‘good Nazi’ are perilous and queasily familiar (try as he might, Schrader isn’t the first to wade into these ethical conundrums). The one proffered here is suggestive of an edgelordish mentality that Schrader seems keen to pull away from… yet simultaneously he seems inexorably drawn to these same inclinations to provoke his audience. It’s a strange tension within the film. A push/pull that doesn’t allow things to settle tonally for any comfortable duration. Watching Master Gardener is not a passive experience. Engage with it and you’ll be constantly questioning your own footing. This type of participatory experience is becoming all-too-rare in the modern cinematic landscape. Narvel is mostly a self-condemned man; his biggest fear seems to be that his own low assumptions of himself will be seen and corroborated by others.
The finale may prove too much for some; an arch tilt toward bygone genre motifs that sees Schrader at his boldest for some time, and his most confrontational with his own work. Master Gardener breaks away from the expectations encouraged by First Reformed and The Card Counter (not to mention his vigilante pictures of old, hello Taxi Driver), suggestive of an evolution not just in the film’s main character, but also in its author. It’s a picture you wrestle with, and that wrestles with you.