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Two Men, One Room
My thoughts on Master Gardener
Towards the end of Flannery O’Connor’s classic novel Wise Blood, central character Hazel Motes, a war veteran who has formed an anti-religious street ministry, is discovered to have strands of barbed wire strapped painfully to his chest in the manner of the penitents of old. The person who sees this remarks to him “There’s no reason for it. People have quit doing it” and Motes famously replies “They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.” Whenever I think about filmmaker Paul Schrader, my mind tends to drift back to that quote and not just because it deploys a combination of brutality and religious symbolism that has turned up frequently in his work (including First Reformed, which did at one point show a man in the midst of a spiritual crisis who has bound himself with barbed wire). At a time when most films are little more than extended commercials for studio IP and the cinema discourse tends to be focused entirely on mindlessly hyping the biggest blockbusters or excoriating the few brave filmmakers who have no particular interest in doing a Marvel project, Schrader continues to stubbornly make films centered on his own interests and obsessions that have little connection with the standard multiplex fare and are all the better and more interesting for it.
This is certainly the case with his latest film, Master Gardener, a film that is so thoroughly a Schrader film that he hardly even needs to have his name on the credits to identify it as a project of his. It forms the conclusion of a loose thematic trilogy of films, preceded by First Reformed and The Card Counter, that have served as exercises in neo-transcendental style (in which restrained cinematic technique is utilized in order to evoke a more spiritual state of mind) in which people plunge themselves into increasingly obsessive pursuits as a way of trying to stave off the darkness within them until they are forced to confront the darkness of their pasts, usually with a lot of violence along the way. This time around, his central character is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a quiet and fastidious man who works as the head gardener at the sprawling Southern estate owned by Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a generally imperious sort who nevertheless gives him a little more leeway than the rest of the staff, including taking him to bed for the occasional assignation.
One day, Mrs. Haverhill asks Narvel for a favor. Her biracial grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), is coming to stay at the estate and she would like Narvel to take her on as an apprentice and teach her about the finer parts of gardening. Upon her arrival, Maya appears to be a diligent and willing protege and a genuine connection begins to develop between the two. As it turns out, the two have something in common beyond flowers and their connection to Mrs. Haverhill—both are hiding big secrets. Maya, we eventually discover, is a drug addict whose dependency has gotten her into trouble with some local dealers. As for Narvel, we learn fairly early in the proceedings that he is a former white supremacist who did horrible things in the past before going into the witness protection program and still bears the literal mark of his former behavior in the form of elaborate racist tattoos on his body that explain why he is always wearing long-sleeved shirts and could prove to be an impediment to any relationship with Maya. (Of course, there is also the implication that the attitudes evoked by those tattoos are not a problem—and possibly even a turn-on—for Mrs. Haverhill.) When Maya gets in Tom trouble, Narvel is compelled to once again tap into the violence that he thought he had rid himself of and put his pruning shears to a different kind of use that usual.
Coming on the heels of First Reformed and The Card Counter, which are two of Schrader’s very best films, Master Gardener cannot help but seem like a lesser work in comparison. Even with the reserved and meticulous formal style employed by Schrader throughout, the story is still a fairly overheated bit of melodrama with moments so outrageous (such as the scene in which Narvel is compelled to strip for Maya) that all your can do is shake your head in disbelief at what you are seeing. While Schrader does deploy a number of motifs that viewers of his earlier films will immediately recognize, they don’t always quite work here. When we see Narvel, like so many other Schrader characters, writing in his journal early on, for example, it is a moment that will inspire some knowing laughs from viewers. That is fine, but when he once again sends his central character on a spree of violence in the final reels as he does here, the effect is a little alienating and kind of disappointing. In past films like Taxi Driver and The Card Counter, the explosions of violence from their main characters in the final scenes felt like the inevitable results of everything that had come before. Here, however, it feels more like a contrivance born more out of an inability to find a way to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion that doesn’t require blood to be shed.
And yet, while Master Gardener does stumble in its second half and doesn’t quite manage to stick the landing, the first half is actually pretty compelling viewing. Although his narrative is, at its heart, is an undeniably familiar one for him, he does find new and intriguing ways of evoking it within the environment he has utilized to tell it, using things like the deliberate and precise movements of Narvel and his fellow gardeners employ towards everything from tending to the flowers to eating their lunch as a way of imposing a hard-fought sense of order that is otherwise lacking in the world outside of the estate. The performance by Edgerton is strong, spare and always compelling—even when you don’t entirely believe in the character that he is playing, he manages to sell it with his restrained and often mesmerizing turn. On the other hand, Weaver is clearly having a grand old time as Mrs. Haverhill, especially in the ways in which she tries, not always successfully, to keep her anger in check so as not to seem indecorous—her turn her is perhaps the most entertaining screen depiction of that beloved trope, the wealthy dowager, since Margaret Dumont upped stumps. Although stuck with the weakest-written of the main characters—writing for women hard admittedly never been one of Schrader’s strongest suits—Swindell does some good work as well as Maya.
In the end, Master Gardener is second-tier Schrader but since he is a filmmaker whose lesser efforts tend to be more interesting than the top works of many others that you or I could name, it is still worth watching. Watching a director like him exploring his personal fascinations with the world instead of merely following the orders of the global marketing campaigns that most films have become. (Somehow, it is weirdly fitting that it is being put out in theaters this weekend as some kind of crackpot counter-programming to the behemoth that is Fast X.) Even in its weakest moments, it has a life and personality to it that moviegoers looking for something that won’t merely pummel them into submission will hopefully appreciate. This type of personal filmmaking may be all but extinct these days but as long as people like Paul Schrader keep doing it, it will continue to exist.