Directed by: Paul Schrader
Distributed by: Magnolia Pictures
Written by Taylor Baker
Paul Schrader’s latest is another contemplative character piece, there’s been much and deservedly going to be much more conversation about how this wraps up his guilt-ridden lonely men who write in a journal trilogy that spanned the last seven years with “First Reformed,” “The Card Counter,” and now “Master Gardener.” I find it far more interesting to draw distinctions and note the similarities not to these recent works from the boisterous writer-director but the commonalities to some of his earlier work like “Hardcore” or “American Gigolo.” As much as we as audience members might be guilty of recency bias and corollary readings, Schrader is an artisan that deserves more thought. To notice not just his patterns, but how he’s matured as a storyteller while keeping his themes, relatively the same.
“Master Gardener’s” subject matter and character arc offer little new from a man whose–almost–exclusively written character studies on outsider adult white males grappling with their place in society after their choices lead them to a crossroads of moral quandary. George C. Scott has just such a crossroads at the beginning of “Hardcore” before he embarks on a journey to find and save his innocent daughter from the villainous porno industry in LA during the late 70s. Likewise, Richard Gere becomes something like a dog at the beck and call of those with power and wealth in “American Gigolo” which one might point to as an earlier depiction of Edgerton’s relationship with Weaver in “Master Gardener.” What is interesting about these three recent films, “First Reformed,” “The Card Counter,” and “Master Gardener” which was absent in many of Schrader’s earlier pieces is how he depicts non-white characters as not only crucial to the narrative but how they provide a spiritual undertone to both the film itself and the central character.
“First Reformed” hinges on and is elevated by a very game Cedric the Entertainer as Joel Jeffers, a pastor who helps shepherd Ethan Hawke’s Ernst Toller through his doubts. “The Card Counter” sees Tiffany Hadish as La Linda a full-bodied love interest whose character and depiction often edge out Isaac, the lead. Though the material Hadish was written is uneven and doesn’t mesh with the whole film (partially due to poor sound design and a slew of other technical reasons) that Schrader conjures there seems to be a focus from him on depicting a full-bodied America grappling with itself for reconciliation in his recent stories, which for now at least peaks in “Master Gardener.” With Quintessa Swindell playing Maya the mixed-race niece of Sigourney Weaver’s Norma Haverhill. A distant relative set to inherit the earth–or in this case estate.
Weaver, for all intents and purposes, seems to be a stand-in for The Daughters of the American Revolution, and her master gardener, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) who sports white power and Nazi tattoos is a man-servant at her beck and call. He undresses for Haverhill when he’s told to, sleeps with her on command, and waits obediently on the porch for her after she summons him to come up to the manse to see her through another one of her pseudo-servants. While on the porch, Weaver comments about the dog that accompanies them and that his name is porch dog. It’s a throwaway line that underscores the unsettling nature underneath the picturesque grounds of her sprawling estate with live-in workers and lush gardens. These people and animals are all just functions to her, their purpose is what she sees it to be. Any interiority they may have is an affront to her, and the way she thinks the world should be.
As the narrative unfolds and Narvel begins teaching Maya to garden, Haverhill becomes increasingly jealous and begins lashing out. The lack of clarity and definition of what bothers her more, Maya’s youth and beauty, the attention she’s receiving from Narvel, or her race provides a distinct and effective sense of the insecurities that so often permeate individuals who manifest such bigoted thoughts and behaviors. And that’s what Schrader seems most focused on here. Ruminating on not just racism or ethnostatism but the psychological underpinnings that divide the bad from the good. With Narvel as the subject of hopeful redemption. The introspection of Narvel though visible happens mostly internally with Edgerton throwing looks, pressing his lips together, and remaining silent and communicating through his physicality rather than words in what seems like an attempt to atone for his past transgressions. It’s some of the finest acting Edgerton’s done.
The film culminates in a myriad of ways that stretches over roughly the final third of the picture, Narvel lets Maya see his tattoos for the first time which leads to a painful but sincere dialogue exchange while they walk around a garden that harkens back to an exterior sequence at a lit up botanical garden shared between Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Hadish in “The Card Counter.” Edgerton uses his past knowledge of violence to protect Maya from her past hand in hand as equals. Ending with them assuming residence together on the grounds of Mrs. Haverhill’s estate. While there is a lot here that is explicit it is the implicitness of what is depicted that charges the film with an electricity that few filmmakers can evoke. What Schrader wrote is an atonement for more than just the leading man in his film. He wrote it to all of us, to who we are, who we’re not, and who we could be. He didn’t get a perfectly polished product to the screen, but what does end up projected in light by the aged storyteller has a pulse, and is teeming with hope.
“Master Gardener” Trailer