Master Gardener

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The guy who wrote Taxi Driver is at it again. Master Gardener, as so often with Paul Schrader, is a film about human beings in need of redemption, a worthless humanity rather a wicked world. Schrader, it comes as no surprise to learn, was raised in the Calvinist Christian Reformed Church.

Joel Edgerton’s Narvel Roth could almost be an older version of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Roth is a guy with a complicated history – or so the alarming tattoos all over his back and chest suggest – who has put his past behind him and now leads a sedate and austere life as the head gardener on an estate owned by grande dame Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). There’s an echo of Miss Havisham in that name, and also in Weaver’s brilliant interpretation of a crotchetty, withdrawn but seemingly all-knowing character who doesn’t get quite as much dramatic action as it originally looks like she’s going to.

That goes instead to Quintessa Swindell’s Maya, a relation of Ms Haverhill’s who comes to work as an apprentice to Roth, a young woman of “mixed blood” (Haverhill’s words) with street attitude and a sullen disdain for “pulling weeds” as she calls it.

As Haverhill once upon a distant time rehabilitated Roth by introducing him to the gentle, orderly world of the garden, so Roth does to Maya, teaching her about the correct composition of loam while also systematising – or trying to – her behaviour.

Redemption is not earned it is given, is the idea. See Protestant theologian John Calvin for more on that.

Narvel with Norma Haverhill
Narvel and Norma

Slow is the idea. Schrader directorially moves everything along at a stately, sometimes glacial pace. Cameras creep, and when they go up into the air they do it elegantly. The palette is muted. There is soft light from cloudy skies. The soundtrack is ambient. His actors speak their lines clearly and in a measured way. It is all of a piece.

I’ve already mentioned Weaver’s acting – it’s a massive colourwheel of emotion. Edgerton is also sensational in his portrayal of a character who’s more guarded. Swindell wavers a bit because the slowness of the pace is out of keeping with Maya’s personality, which is meant to be wired and street-edgy. A girl from the wrong side of the tracks. But as the plot changes focus and the whole thing suddenly becomes a road movie – it’s Narvel and Maya on the road together – Swindell locks right in and starts making sense.

On the road together. A 50-year-old man (roughly Edgerton’s age, so I’m assuming Narvel is about the same) and a 25-year-old woman (ditto for Swindell). This is the film’s least plausible section, as if Schrader had one idea for a setup, and one for a payoff, but as for the middle he just pulled something from a lucky bag.

It does not work. For various reasons, but not least because on this trip Narvel suddenly realises, or reveals that he knew all along, that Maya is a drug addict. In two/three minutes she no longer is. He’s cleaned her all up. Her redemption.

What also doesn’t work very well is the drama of these characters’ current lives. All of them had much more dramatically interesting lives in the past, it turns out, though Haverhill’s is only hinted at. In particular, how did Narvel get from a very dark place to this one? What was the psychological journey? The trigger? No explanation.

I cannot say what lurks in Roth’s past because the revealing of it is a sensational development in a movie strangely lacking in them. This is the fascinating, nicely made, beautifully acted movie that doesn’t quite add up, that leaves more questions unanswered than it answers. Watch it for the acting – it’s really worth it. And to see Schrader wrangling once again with the issue that’s powered nearly all his films, whether as writer or director. That’s also worth it too.

Master Gardener – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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