Master Gardener Review – Another Journey into Nihilism, Optimism and Romance From the Unsubtle Filmmaker Paul Schrader

Master Gardener is Paul Schrader’s latest entry into his loose trilogy of solitary men that started with First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021), it is also his most romantic, or whatever romance means to Schrader which is difficult to define. Like many Schrader films there is a sense that a female character exists to bring out something in an otherwise seemingly irredeemable male character. Joel Edgerton breaks the mould somewhat in that his Narval Roth is a character that is doing all he can to redeem himself – to change and grow like the garden he tends. He also has a profoundly ugly past as a trigger man for a white supremacy group that he turned informant on.

Narval works for Graceland Gardens run by the imperious Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) who barely disguises her own racism when she decides to take in her “mixed-blood” grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya’s parents have both died from what Nora calls “lifestyle choices” – in fact both are drug related. Maya has been left in poverty and Nora’s intervention seems more a saving face gesture than anything remotely to do with care. Nora is the product of intergenerational wealth, and it’s surprising that Schrader didn’t choose to set the film in the South, because the owner of the plantation manor personality is fitting for Nora, a woman whose eyes gleam with excitement when she takes Narval to bed and gazes over his white power and swastika tattoos.

Rarely a subtle director, Schrader in Master Gardener overloads the garden, making sense of nature, the ability for plants to regenerate, and so on, metaphors extremely seriously to the point where the audience might be forgiven for thinking “Yes, we understand.” A portrait of Nora as a garden nymph/temptress hangs in the background of her spotless grand dining room. Flowers are described as miraculous. Nora’s major social event for the year is the annual Garden Show and auction and she’s a taskmaster to Narval and his mostly young team.

Maya, who is somewhere above twenty years of age (Nora doesn’t know nor care) takes to garden work with care and skill and under the tutelage of Narval begins to blossom, as does their romance. In an encounter with Nora, the former calls Maya “not inadequate, but impertinent” – the strain for her not to say “uppity” is clear. Nora’s sexual jealousy leads her to fire both Maya and Narval.

When Maya isn’t in the magical kingdom of plants her life outside is violent and marred by her past associations with drug dealers. This is something that Narval understands all too well (we have flashbacks of his past with neo-Nazi groups). Schrader brings up the question whether Narval will teach his new apprentice other skills, skills associated with death and revenge, not skills relating to beauty and rebirth.

Joel Edgerton is excellent as the literally buttoned up Narval, a man who wears his past on his skin as a way to remind him of who he was and also as a form of self-punishment. Like many of Schrader’s men he is placed on the precipice of reverting to or choosing violence. Quintessa Swindell as Maya acts as his saviour – not just by forgiving his neo-Nazi background (it’s a questionable piece of writing by Schrader) but by also delivering him from Nora’s control. The fact that she’s half Narval’s age seems to matter little, but then the age difference between Nora and Narval is also of note. Sigourney Weaver delivers a fantastic performance as the truly repulsive Nora. At this stage we can assume that in a Schrader script there will be some misogyny and Nora’s character is to an extent a caricature that feeds into that, but also delivers some of the most scathing judgements of women in the film.

Narval intones in his monotone that takes the form of him narrating his journal that “People are taught to hate,” and goes on to ruminate on the way gardens rebuild themselves and that nature is healing. Narval has done his best to redeem himself and his healing will come in time. Schrader’s Master Gardener might not have the precisely planned beauty of an estate garden, but it is strangely optimistic and romantic. Like many of Schrader’s works it will divide audiences – for those who have enjoyed the late era of the director’s filmography Master Gardener delivers what has come to be expected. Nihilism, optimism, romance – a strange and heady combination.

Director: Paul Schrader

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell

Writer: Paul Schrader

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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