On paper, Paul Schrader’s latest, Master Gardenerhas all the elements to be a continuation of the writer-director’s recent renaissance First Reformed and The Card Counter. Another solitary man tormented by a violent past seeks regeneration, penning detailed journals about the obsession — in this case, horticulture — that keeps his darkest thoughts at bay. Joel Edgerton’s haunted central performance as former white supremacist Narvel Roth fits the essential Schrader mold of a troubled soul hiding from his demons. But little else rings true in a drama curiously lacking in texture, which misses the mark in lifeless scene after scene.
The film premieres out of competition in Venice in conjunction with Schrader receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, an honor fully earned with a distinguished body of work going back almost 50 years. However, this is one of his weaker efforts, right down to its uncharacteristically conventional fairy-tale resolution. While its North American bow is scheduled for the New York Film Festival, Master Gardener has yet to secure US distribution.
The Bottom Line
Wilts and dies.
Cinematographer Alexander Dynan brought fitting visual austerity to First Reformed and jazzy vitality to the casino settings of The Card Counter. But aside from the crisp time-lapse shots of flowers blossoming on the opening credits, the DP’s latest collaboration with Schrader is disappointingly flat.
That’s a significant drawback for a film pegged to the elaborate metaphor of gardens as places where order is created out of wildness, where manicured grounds can be a class gateway and where the future can bring rejuvenation, even in the face of what seems irreversible damage. There’s also the duality of gardens seen by some as beacons of diversity and by others as enclosed worlds to be kept pure by eliminating the weeds.
Perhaps the time and location constraints of pandemic production played a part, but the principal setting, despite being the pride of its wealthy owner and being readied for a ritzy charity auction of exotic blooms, looks remarkably drab. Almost the sole interlude of visual interest is a carpet of CG flowers springing to life along a roadside and under the wheels of Narvel’s car during a moment of romantic revelation.
Placed in a witness protection program after providing enough incriminating information to send a bunch of his fellow white-power radicals to prison, Narvel found a new life and a consuming passion tending the grounds at Gracewood Gardens. It seems the controlling dowager who lives in the grand old Southern former plantation house, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), spotted his green thumb and took a shine to him, his duties regularly extending to the bedroom.
Clearly, she’s aware of his Proud Boy past given that it’s tattooed all over his torso in the form of swastikas and other hate symbols. Either Norma believes Narvel’s racism is completely behind him or she’s toying with him when she instructs him to take on her 20ish, mixed-race grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as a paid apprentice.
Maya rocks up for her first day of work wearing a “No Bad Vibes” tie-dye T-shirt and ripped jeans, her ear buds blasting music; she seems bemused by the decision of this distant relative, a woman she hasn’t even met since she was a child visiting the estate, to turn her into a gardener. There’s zero indication in the script that Maya has her own troubles, with drug issues she inherited from her late mother and an abusive relationship with the slap-happy dealer for whom she sometimes works, RG (Jared Bankens).
It’s no fault of Swindell that Maya instead seems supremely chill — and takes to horticulture like a natural — until she appears with a split lip and beat-up face. The lack of foreshadowing isn’t helped either by RG and his sidekick Sissy (Matt Mercurio) being the least menacing drug criminals ever to stink up a bad neighborhood — as if they were randomly hauled in off the street and handed the script moments before shooting. .
The muddled tone of the chronically underpowered film is exacerbated by a score from British alternative R&B composer Devonté Hynes, whose mellow grooves seem antithetical to tension or suspense.
Writing multi-dimensional women has never been Schrader’s strongest suit, but it’s unfortunate that Weaver, who could play this kind of chilly imperiousness in her sleep, is saddled with some truly awful dialogue and unpersuasive conflicts that spark up out of nothing. That’s the case during her first lunch with Maya; the younger woman ruffles her employer’s feathers, causing friction that deepens later when Norma perceives a growing attraction between “Sweet Pea,” as she calls Narvel, and her grand-niece.
Maya’s presence sets off a series of events, starting when Narvel asks his law-enforcement handler (Esai Morales) to pay a visit to RG and continuing when he and Maya evolve into each other’s unlikely escape routes from the past. That doesn’t sit well with RG, who strikes back in a clumsy scene that editor Benjamin Rodriguez Jr. cross-cuts like it’s the baptism murders in The Godfather.
The core strength of the film is Edgerton’s stoical characterization. He looks the part, with slicked-down Hitler hair and a black turtleneck under his gardening overalls. And he nails the struggle between the nightmares fed by the gun violence in his history and the enormous care he has put into his release from that ugly past, even if the voiceover goes a tad heavy on his scholarly botanical reflections.
The notion of a one-time avowed racist killer who wears the evidence of that hate on his skin falling into romantic involvement with a vulnerable Black woman half his age should in effect be quite provocative. “Obscene,” Norma calls it once she sees that Sweet Pea has moved to a new flower bed. Just the very idea of an ex-Proud Boy finding a path to redemption will piss off a lot of people, not that Schrader is new to controversy.
But the director’s quintessentially Catholic vision of transgression and forgiveness never builds the necessary dramatic truth here to warrant much reflection.
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