"Master Gardener" completes what the writer-director Paul Schrader has described as a kind of trilogy, and what I've come to see as a fascinating game of topical bingo.
"First Reformed" (2018) was about a Christian minister radicalized by the threat of climate change; "The Card Counter" (2021) forced a professional gambler to confront his past crimes at Abu Ghraib. These calculated juxtapositions — of a character's main occupation and his deeper, more troubling preoccupations — might sound whimsical or formulaic. But for Schrader, steeped in the conventions of B-thrillers and art films alike, formula can be a jumping-off point rather than a guiding principle. At his best, he treats his political subjects, to say nothing of his human ones, with a moral weight and an emotional gravity rare in American movies.
He tries to do the same in "Master Gardener," which stars Joel Edgerton as an expert horticulturalist concealing his own terrible history of violence. A walking red flag with a green thumb, he goes by the name Narvel Roth, which is surely some sort of punishment. For years Narvel has maintained and lived on the grounds of a handsome Southern estate, the unsubtly named Gracewood Gardens, where he goes about his work with calm authority and a technical expertise that often tilts into the philosophical. The flowers we see early on, blooming and blazing with color in a split-screen, time-lapse opening montage, have been nurtured with dedication, care and a deep trust in nature's due course. Or, as Narvel puts it, "a belief in the future that things will happen according to plan."
But that belief exists in tension with an understanding that nature, though capable of being ordered, cultivated, arranged and aestheticized, can never really be tamed. (As one character says, with the too-fine-a-point cleverness that sometimes seeps into Schrader's writing: "You can't spreadsheet nature. It'll only surprise you.") And Narvel, played by Edgerton with sublimated tension, impeccable control and a slick, suspiciously Hitler-evocative haircut, is the flesh-and-blood embodiment of this wild botanical metaphor. His past may be buried, but it remains etched in the skull and swastika tattoos on his chest and back, hidden just beneath his coveralls. And before long it will burst into view in abruptly inserted flashbacks, affording us a crude yet oddly coy glimpse of Narvel the bearded, black-leather-clad neo-Nazi.
By the time we see those tattoos, Narvel has already been introduced to his latest apprentice, Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya, we're told, is a troubled 20-something in need of some structure and discipline, and she finds both at Gracewood, where she proves a quick study and an attentive employee. But once Narvel's white-nationalist past emerges, it becomes harder not to see Maya as a construct, an amalgam of conscious, somewhat contrived narrative choices that doesn't entirely serve Swindell's charismatic screen presence. The fact that Maya is a Black biracial woman suddenly working alongside a man who's committed horrific anti-Black violence is certainly a choice. Her (mostly off-screen) struggles with drug addiction are another.
And then there's the fact that Maya is the estranged grand-niece of Gracewood's owner, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, in wonderfully imperious grande-dame mode), who has her own complicated motives for bringing Maya into the fold and under Narvel's care. Norma knows all about Narvel's history and has allowed Gracewood to serve as his healing and hiding place. He is, in a sense, her personal hothouse flower (she calls him "sweet pea"), rescued from a messy past, replanted in cleaner soil and nurtured into handsome bloom. The nature of their relationship is laid bare, along with Narvel's incriminatingly inked-up torso, in a scene that — along with the rotten ambience of this former plantation house, with its drooping willows and genteel porchfront conversations — suggests that the racist pathologies of the antebellum South still persist generations later. (The movie was shot in Louisiana.)
All this gives "Master Gardener" a discomfiting patina of timeliness — a topical reach that Schrader, thoughtful and methodical as he is, nonetheless struggles to wrest under control as he draws Narvel and Maya closer together. The story, surely motivated by the ongoing resurgence of homegrown white supremacy and neofascism, hinges on the question of whether Narvel's sins can be washed clean — or, given the seemingly contented, outwardly untroubled new life he's carved out for himself, whether they already have been. The possibility of redemption hangs over this movie, as it does in much of Schrader's work. But for the first time in this trilogy, that possibility is resolved in a manner that feels neither fully examined nor earned.
And I do mean manner. There's goofy pleasure to be had in the stately, overwrought syntax of Schrader's dialogue, but it also feels emblematic of a story that — even as it introduces a couple of shady villains and a Chekhov's gun (plus Chekhov's pruning shears) — rarely seems to play out deeper than surface-level. Unlike "First Reformed" and "The Card Counter," whose moods and rhythms seemed to emerge from a rigorous immersion in their respective milieus of church and casino, "Master Gardener" doesn't really engage with Narvel's profession beyond the realm of windy philosophical abstraction. Its reckoning with racism — as a fixture of Narvel's past, and as an obstacle to his and Maya's future — feels similarly superficial.
The movie builds to a calculatedly outrageous image that I won't give away here, except to say that it feels a little too taken with its own fleshy audacity. And to these eyes, that image is rendered nearly meaningless in the wake of a much more upsetting image that's emerged since this month's mass shooting in Allen, Texas, committed by a young man sporting his own Nazi tattoos. That isn't fair, you might protest. But I'd say it's entirely fair, insofar as "Master Gardener" openly and eagerly courts real-world comparisons. If it wilts under scrutiny, it has only itself to blame.
MPA rating: R (for language, brief sexual content and nudity)
Running time: 1:50
How to watch: Now in theaters
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