Paul Schrader is a controversial figure. Once upon a time, the writer of The Last Temptation of Christ, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver was an easy person to point to as, inarguably, a man who understood how to tell a story and tell it well. A professed Christian, it’s hard to pin down what exactly he believes in. In 2016, his online outbursts about the soon-to-be-inaugurated 45th U.S. president were so vitriolic—he even invoked the name of John Brown, the famous abolitionist who was martyred following his attempts to incite slave rebellions prior to the Civil War—that they prompted an investigation from the NYPD’s Counter Terrorism unit. Last year, however, in another social media post apparently inspired by the Academy Awards sweep by Everything Everywhere All at Once, he criticized the “wokeness” of the Oscars, and the year prior, he referred to the positive critical reappraisal of Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles in the Sight & Sound decade-ending poll as a “landmark of distorted woke reappraisal.” With that in mind, one has to wonder what he means with his latest picture, Master Gardener, as he was both writer and director on the feature. Technically, there are spoilers ahead.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) leads a team of groundskeepers at the historical estate of Gracewood Gardens. He is meticulous in every word and deed; his interactions with his staff and his employer include very precise word choice, his planning of the grounds and deliberate choices of which flowers should be planted in which quadrant to ensure complementary and continuous blooming demonstrate a profound punctiliousness, and his small home—which sits on the grounds just near the main house at Gracewood—is rigidly organized and maintained. In his journals and his dreams, however, we learn that his mind is not so painstakingly groomed and patterned. Early on, he refers to the moments of anticipation leading up to the blooming of a flower with the use of a violent simile: that it is like the moment leading up to the pulling of a trigger. As we learn through a series of flashbacks, Gracewood is not where Narvel was hired, but is in fact where he was placed, as part of the Witness Protection Program. A former member of a neo-Nazi militia, he turned state’s evidence and has resided at Gracewood ever since. (I know that, for some, this will constitute a spoiler, but I also feel it important to take note of this, since I went into the film with no knowledge that this would be part of the film, and this is a sensitive topic that I feel it is important to have some forewarning about.)
His world begins to change when the ancestral owner of the estate, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), informs Narvel that he will soon be responsible for the apprenticeship of her great niece, a young woman named Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya, the product of an interracial marriage, formerly visited the grounds with her mother, the daughter of Norma’s sister, when she was a child, but those visits came to an end with Maya’s mother took ill and died. In contrast to Narvel’s overt but distant racism, Norma’s is genteel but still very much present. She refers to Maya, derisively, as being of “mixed blood,” and in the scene in which we learn that there are elements of sexual transaction in Narvel and Norma’s relationship, we see that she regards the medley of racist tattoos that Narvel keeps hidden beneath his gardening clothes (the numbers 88 and 14, the Confederate flag, cracker bolts, and the obligatory swastika) with gratified admiration. While Narvel interacts pleasantly and respectfully with his diverse staff, Maya, and even his WitSec contact Oscar Neruda (Puerto Rican-American Esai Morales) in a way that demonstrates that he has shaken off the hatred of his past, Norma still occupies what is clearly and inarguably a former plantation house, and the way that she carries herself and interacts with both her staff and her last living relative, whom she considers tainted by her non-whiteness, demonstrates that her passive racism and white supremacy is harmful in the same way that Narvel’s past neo-Nazi activities were. Things take a turn for the worse when Norma banishes Narvel and Maya from Gracewood when she falsely assumes that the two have developed a sexual relationship. Narvel invites Maya to come with him, detox and get sober, and continue to learn to find meaning in the horticultural arts, but even though he has pruned himself in such a way that he has grown into a different person, his worries that his roots (pun intended) in violence and white supremacy may taint him and his actions forever.
I see this film being listed as a crime thriller in most postings, and while it definitely has elements of that genre (there are certain segments involving vigilante activity that feel like they could have been lifted directly from the 2014 version of The Equalizer), Master Gardener is, first and foremost, a character study, and frequently has moments of black comedy as well. Narvel is a man of contradictions, formerly a member of the worst kind of terrorist organization who now stands as the human bulwark between the aging Norma and her staff. When Maya sees his tattoos and confronts him about them, asking why he hasn’t had them covered up or removed, he has no real answer for her, only stating that he had looked into it and decided not to (which I interpret as Narvel having left them on his body for Norma’s sake but not wanting to say this outright, but that’s just my reading of the text and is by no means canonical). In an early sequence in which Narvel’s journal is presented to us in voiceover, he recounts that while it was once thought that seeds had a lifespan of less than two centuries, but that some that had been uncovered by archaeologists millennia after they were harvested were able to be sprouted, speaking to the perseverance of nature, but in the same sequence, he refers to his tattoos as seeds as well, and it’s left ambiguous what this means. Does he think that hate is eternal? What does he expect them to germinate into? We never get a clear answer.
This is a rich, beautifully photographed, and sumptuous film. Immediately after, when my viewing companion and I were discussing it over dinner, neither of us was sure if we had enjoyed it or not, and I’m still not sure, as I write this a day later. It’s certainly leagues better than the last Schrader film that I saw (The Canyons), and there’s a beauty in its ambiguity that I have to admire. It recalls Schrader’s most well-known film, Taxi Driver, insofar as it is about a man with a dark and troubled past whose obsessive devotion to a younger woman leads him to violent acts, but where it differs is that the older film is about a man who becomes a proto-incel because he can only see the ugliness of the world, while Gardener is about a man who is seeking redemption, and maybe finding it.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond