Everything in Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener exists at roughly a forty-five-degree angle to reality. The film has one foot planted in a mostly recognizable world but the other in a dreamland of the writer/director’s invention. It makes for a schizoid presentation that delivers moments of gutsy idiosyncrasy but few characters whose problems and reactions feel connected to familiar human emotions.
If Schrader was making a Marvel film, that would not necessarily be a problem. But even though Joel Edgerton does masterful work with his portrayal of the protagonist Narvel Roth, the character reads as though out of a self-published novel by a reclusive and eccentric horticulturist trying to write his own Threat Level Midnight.
Ostensibly the master gardener for the lovingly manicured grounds on a grand Louisiana plantation, Narvel is actually in witness protection. Ten years earlier, he dropped the dime on the neo-Nazis he ran with and occasionally killed for. In a setup that seems like an elaborate pun on turning over a new leaf, he was given a new identity, apprenticed to Norma (Sigourney Weaver)—the estate’s very grand and demanding dame—and began tip-toeing back into the human race. But for the occasional skinhead-filled nightmare, it seems to have worked. Then Norma asks him a favor.
Like Schrader’s screenplays going back to Taxi Driver and Hardcore (both from 1979), Master Gardener‘s action is kicked off by a young and possibly troubled woman coming within range of a man with an obsessive bent and crossed wiring. Norma’s grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) washes up at the estate following a few years of running with a “bad crowd” and is put under Narvel’s tutelage. Although Norma describes Maya in sneering tones as some kind of wandering wastrel unworthy of the family name—referring to her as “mixed blood” with a tone of light contempt common to Southern gentility—the younger woman appears perfectly capable of keeping up with Narvel. Both cautious and watchful personalities weighed down by regret, Narvel and Maya share an immediate but unspoken bond.
His buttoned-up and courtly manner toward Maya is indicative of the film itself. Much of the texturing in Master Gardener comes from Narvel’s narration of his journals, meditations on the history and philosophy of gardening. This is not as enervating as it might sound, given Edgerton’s deeply felt and almost lush delivery, which invests lines like “gardening is a belief in the future” with greater emotional resonance than the words may deserve.
Unlike the doom-shrouded journaling which Schrader gave his brooding priest in 2018’s First Reformed, here the narration is less an extension of character than a substitute for it. In Master Gardener, Narvel’s journaling gives him the appearance of soulfulness before the reveal showing the SS bolts and other Nazi iconography scarring his chest and back. How could a man who knows the classic categories of gardens (formal, informal, “wild”) and has agreed to take a wayward young woman under his wing be truly a monster?
The tattoos, like the flashback snips of Narvel’s violent past that occasionally dart through, are a narrative shortcut in a film full of easy outs. As the attraction blooms between Maya and Narvel, each of the obstacles to their relationship are dealt with in cursory fashion. Discovering Maya’s addiction, Narvel gets her detoxed and into some Narcotics Anonymous meetings. In what seems like a few days, the quickest drug recovery in history appears to have succeeded.
After Maya, whose father was African, confronts Narvel about the tattoos, his explanation (“I was raised to hate”) neatly elides what his flashbacks suggest are a litany of race-based murders. After that, she moves past her anger with an unconvincing speed. As the story clicks toward a neatly constructed if not compelling conclusion, Narvel is handily provided a pair of criminals on which to enact some conscience-clearing vengeance.
With an ending like this, Master Gardener should feel overly familiar. Isn’t Narvel just one more of Schrader’s moon-faced loners, another guy with a gun and a past glooming around until the final spasm of expiating destruction? But there’s a perverse tone to the film that kicks everything into a stranger register. The performances are mannered, unnaturally hushed, and formal. Narvel’s horticultural reveries are detailed and reverential enough that they fascinate almost more than the stilted human drama. In an affecting dream sequence, Maya and Narvel drive down the dark tunnel of a nighttime forest road which magically bursts into color as flowers bloom like a fireworks display.
Master Gardener is also cross-hatched with a jangled and trauma-shadowed sexuality. The chilly, masochistic tone is far removed from any sense of freely lusting desire. Narvel follows the older, regal Norma up to her chambers like a beaten servant hoping to be finally put in his place. When bedding Maya, who seems roughly half his age, he crouches down and services her as though seeking atonement for his racist past. It’s a potentially complex commingling of Eros, Thanatos, and multiple vectors of power and hate that never quite takes root in this ultimately shallow story.