Master Gardener (2023)

‘Gardener’ crops up with meager yield

A white supremacist tending daisies wouldn’t seem worthy of a movie. But in the hands of an auteur like Paul Schrader, his “Master Gardener” is a pleasure to witness grow and blossom. It’s not as prodigious as earlier crops, but when it’s Joel Edgerton turning over the soil of a horticulturist’s sordid past, the yield is something to behold.

As with any seedling, it requires patience and attention. This is particularly true in the early stages, as Schrader wants you to believe Edgerton’s Narvel Roth is nothing more than the reserved gardener of the title. As Narvel pores over his journal, we hear him in voiceover explain how closely a garden resembles society and how some arrangements are rigid and confined, while others thrive when free and unencumbered. Yes, Shrader’s being a tad obvious in his use of metaphor. And it won’t be the first time.

At about the 10-minute mark, the plot kicks into gear when the grandniece of Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), the wealthy owner of the aptly named Gracewood Gardens (presided over by Narvel), arrives as a nepo baby not so eager to become his apprentice. Narvel isn’t too keen on the idea, either. But what Norma wants, Norma gets, exemplified on the nights she summons Narvel to her boudoir for a bit of tilling in her personal garden of delights.

The young lady’s name is Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a recovering addict and the daughter of a junkie, much to Norma’s embarrassment. It’s clear from their first meeting that Maya, clad in torn jeans and a “No Bad Vibes” tie-dyed T-shirt, is going to clash with the buttoned-up Narvel. Initially, Maya’s mixed-race heritage seems incidental. But (spoiler alert) fast forward a few scenes when we watch Narvel remove his shirt to reveal a torso heavily tattooed with swastikas and other symbols of hate, and it’s everything.

Immediately, Schrader challenges you to re-evaluate all your assumptions about Narvel. Is he still a neo-Nazi? Is Norma abetting him? Most urgently, how do we square a love of nature and beauty with a man whose beliefs are inhuman? It’s a mind-bending juxtaposition, particularly once Narvel and Maya draw closer, bonding over their checkered pasts. As long as Schrader maintains that father-daughter boundary, the healing they inspire is moving. But (another spoiler alert) when Schrader attempts to steer their relationship into the realm of romance, the ick factor comes close to inducing a killing freeze.

Yet, you’re intrigued by Maya’s potential reaction upon learning Narvel’s well-hidden history of racism and violence, which we are made privy to via quick snapshots flashing through Narvel’s head as he weighs the dangers of allowing Maya to invade his life of solitude and shame. Had Schrader kept the focus on that element, “Master Gardener” might have taken its rightful place among the writer-director’s best films, including “Affliction” and his Oscar-nominated “First Reformed.”

Instead, he senselessly introduces a silly side plot about a pair of moronic drug dealers assaulting Maya, and Narvel’s growing need to avenge the attack. It feels tacked on, an unwelcome distraction from the theme of redemption. Ditto for Narvel’s frequent meetings with his handler, a federal agent named Neruda (Esai Morales) who years ago persuaded Narvel to rat on his Proud Boy pals in exchange for entry into the witness protection program.

These intrusions are annoying, but in keeping with Schrader’s career-long fixation on men and their reliance on violence to express both their anger and desire for atonement. In “First Reformed,” that dichotomy of love and revenge melded flawlessly. But here, it feels inauthentic. The strong performances by Edgerton and Swindell go a long way in countering that weakness, as the two actors display an easy chemistry that helps temper the contrivances. Edgerton, in particular, is superb at using his soulful eyes and sense of quiet dignity to endear you to a hardly warm and fuzzy man.

As a result, his Narvel fits nicely into Schrader’s pantheon of volcanic men consumed by self-hatred and a lust to lash out at a society that marginalizes them. Their answer is frequently violence first, often of the vigilante ilk. But in focusing on these extremists — affording them recognition and imbuing them with a degree of normalcy and humanity — does it make it easier for us to root for them? And do we risk becoming unwitting enablers of such behavior? One can only hope not!

Movie review

Master Gardener

Rated: R for brief sexual content, nudity, language

Cast: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell and Esai Morales.

Director/writer: Paul Schrader

Run time: 110 minutes

Grade: B-

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