Film Review: “Master Gardener” — White Knight to the Rescue
By Steve Erickson
Master Gardener is more Pinterest mood board than story.
Master Gardener, directed by Paul Schrader. Opening at Coolidge Corner Theatre and the AMC Boston Commons on May 19.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) gels his hair tightly to his scalp as though his life would fall apart if a follicle fell out of place. And he fully embraces the discipline of his current job, overseeing an elaborate garden on a former plantation in New Orleans. His clothes look like a costume, or at least a uniform: a leather coat, long-sleeved black turtleneck, boots, dark blue jeans. (His co-workers wear green shirts.) He moves cautiously and deliberately, as though he is carrying out actions planned far in advance, like an actor who long ago settled on the body language needed to flesh out his character. This isn’t reflexivity so much as an allusion to the fact that Roth has reinvented himself. In flashbacks, we see that he once sported shaggy hair and a beard. A former neo-Nazi hitman, he’s changed his name, entered the witness protection program, and has turned his life around. Still, a torso and back full of tattooed fascist imagery (and other relics of his past, such a syringe) have clung to him. Roth is a compelling character, but he never hangs together as a believable person. He only makes sense in the context of the other “God’s lonely men” screenwriter/director Schrader has created, with Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle as the archetype. (That phrase is the director’s own.) Everyone else in the film exists to serve his needs.
Norma Howager (Sigourney Weaver), a sharp-tongued woman who relies on wine to get through the day, owns Greenwood Gardens, where Roth works. He seems trapped in his own head, yet he still manages to supervise several workers. He sleeps with Norma to retain his job, and she also lets him stay on her estate. She introduces Roth to her biracial grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, a nonbinary actor playing a cis woman), who is struggling with a drug problem and an abusive boyfriend. Once she turns up to work with a split lip, Roth figures out the problems and offers to help her. He guides her through detox and takes her to an N.A. meeting. The two fall in love.
Because Master Gardener is a film by Paul Schrader, it wastes no time showing Roth sitting alone in a dark room — the single bed and desk make it resemble a jail cell — writing in his notebook. This is the final film of a trilogy that began with First Reformed and The Card Counter. While their characters and lead performances are different, Edgerton’s body language and style of dress bear a family resemblance to Oscar Isaac’s in the latter effort. By this point, we know what to expect from a Schrader film because he has made his aim clear in his writings, most notably his book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. At least four times he’s restaged the ending of Bresson’s Pickpocket, though he’s taken the French director’s stark religious influence into far pulpier areas.
Master Gardener is more Pinterest mood board than story. It offers an aesthetic rather than believable characters. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography tones down even the colors of the flowers. Buds spring open during the credits, but the film is shot to look as though a thunderstorm is perpetually on the horizon. (A scene where Roth hallucinates greenery erupting on the road as he drives with Maya is a rare exception.) Edgerton’s performance is strong enough to serve as the film’s center, but that may be because Schrader understands him far more than he does Maya. Schrader’s active, cranky presence on Facebook led A24 to force him off social media while First Reformed was in possible Oscar contention. Several lines of dialogue suggest his skepticism about the value of online discourse. (As many have noted, Film Twitter will be even more insufferable than usual when this movie makes it into wide release.)
On top of these social media issues, the film’s script is suffused with a literary patina that jars with its more genre-oriented aspects. Before First Reformed, Schrader took a detour into violent B-movies with Dog Eat Dog and Dying of the Light. (The latter was taken away from him and re-edited against his wishes. Dark, his attempt at providing his cut, can be found online.) That element of his work persists in Master Gardener. At least in The Card Counter Schrader had an excuse for staging harrowing scenes of torture at Abu Ghraib. But he doesn’t seem to care all that much about what is driving the carnage in Master Gardener, to the point where the mayhem comes across as a commercial obligation. Every half hour, the meditative film suddenly remembers that — at least theoretically — it is trying to be a crowd-pleasing revenge fantasy.
When the action stops, Master Gardener is solemn to the point of self-parody. (I laughed a few times, but those moments may not have been intentional.) The film’s commitment to self-laceration is seductive enough to make it work — until Roth’s relationship with Maya deepens. Or at least that’s what we are supposed to believe is a romance. They never make for a convincing couple. The concept of a Black woman falling in love with a reformed neo-Nazi who was once so passionate about white nationalism that he had Hitler’s birthday inked into his body is supposed to be provocative. But Master Gardener ends up playing it safe. A truly perverse movie could take the masochism hinted at in their relationship much further, instead of opting for a reassuring wrap-up.
For much of his career, Schrader has specialized in sympathetically depicting this kind of tormented white male antihero. (His influence can be seen all over the last few decades of prestige TV dramas.) Master Gardener does get inside Roth’s head, to the point where we understand how he makes sense of himself and his past. But the film doesn’t care about what makes Maya tick. She’s there as a passive means to an end, so Roth can help her. She just barely balks at sleeping with a man whose body is covered in Nazi imagery. Schrader is skillful at dramatizing macho posturing, but he flounders when it comes to going beyond that, to creating a fable of self-reclamation, an allegory about cleansing the poisons. Given the ugliness of Roth’s past and his beliefs, it is hard to take his redemption as anything more than a variation on the white knight syndrome.
Steve Erickson writes about film and music for Gay City News, Slant Magazine, the Nashville Scene, Trouser Press, and other outlets. He also produces electronic music under the tag callinamagician. His latest album, The Bloodshot Eye of Horus, was released in November 2022, and is available to stream here.