Much time is spent in Paul Schrader’s new film espousing the pleasures and virtues of gardening: how it calms the mind and mends the soul, how it rewards patient labor and nurturing with flourishing beauty. These sentiments are all true; it’s just a little surprising to hear them in the context of a film as slapdash and sometimes outright ugly as “Master Gardener,” which sees Schrader rather haphazardly grafting the philosophical bent of such recent efforts as “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter” to exploitative B-movie plotting, and doing little to convince in either register. After a surge in critical appreciation for the veteran auteur’s work, this minor effort — premiering, perhaps somewhat tellingly, out of competition at Venice — is unlikely to reap similar interest.
Stoic, soft-spoken horticulturalist Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) earns a peaceful living tending to Gracewood Gardens, a vast, ornate Southern estate owned by wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Rarely seen out of his daily working garb of drab overalls, long-sleeved sweaters and boots, his hair short and slicked and seemingly parted with a kitchen knife, he cuts an at once authoritative and gentle figure, his imposing physical presence softened by the care and delicacy with which he works: This is a man who can nuzzle his nose into a handful of loam soil, deeply breathe in its essences, and keep a straight face throughout.
More from Variety
So it’s a jolt when, not far into proceedings, Narvel removes his unassuming uniform to unveil a back and torso slathered in neo-Nazi tattoos, sundry skulls and swastikas betraying his now-renounced past as a hitman for a white supremacist gang. Pretty much all that follows in “Master Gardener” is built around this brief, arresting reveal, later repeated in more loaded personal circumstances. The tension between who he was and who he is — if the name “Narvel Roth” sounds hardly real, well, it hardly is — powers Edgerton’s taut, contained, unsmiling performance, which in turn is the film’s most live, unpredictable element. External tension, in the increasingly silly revenge tale that ensues, is harder to come by.
One person who knows what lies under Narvel’s clothes — and isn’t in the least bit bothered — is Norma, to whom he grants regular sexual favors in return for gainful employment and a colonial-style lodge on the estate. The question over to what degree she actually approves of his Proud Boy-esque origins is one of the subtler wrinkles in Weaver’s exaggeratedly arch, forbidding performance; either way, it’s an arrangement that begins to sour when she instructs Narvel to take on her estranged biracial grand-niece Maya (Swindell) as a gardening apprentice.
Maya turns up with limited interest and a whole load of psychological baggage inherited from her late, drug-addicted mother, though it’s not long before she begins porously absorbing Narvel’s nature-boy expertise. If it’s just about plausible that he can make a keen gardener out of this disaffected zoomer, it’s far harder to buy that they’d then fall hard for each other. This development is hardly supported by any visible chemistry between the two leads, but it’s nonetheless necessary for “Master Gardener” to proceed to its next act, as Narvel reverts to his past assassin mode to weed out certain obstacles standing between the odd couple and their future happiness — this time with a pair of pruning shears in his arsenal.
It’s a thin quest, marked by ill-motivated violent behavior in all directions, and one unequal to the larger and largely unanswered question running through the narrative of how a Black woman might make her peace with the personal history of a lover who still has “White Pride” inked in gothic lettering across his shoulders. (He promises her he’ll have the tattoos removed; her questioning appears to begin and end on those literally skin-deep terms.) By the time, Schrader and DP Alexander Dynan set up an artfully shadowed, symmetrically composed shot of a swastika-speckled white man performing oral sex on a Black woman, the uncomfortable sense sets in that “Master Gardener” has really been pursuing this provocative image rather than any more thornily searching reflection on confronting, healing and planting over race hate.
“The seeds of love grow like the seeds of hate,” Narvel writes in the journal he keeps — rather like Oscar Isaac’s surly hero in “The Card Counter” — as an antidote to his past thuggery: an aphorism further underlined by a gaudy CGI sequence, breaking fluorescently from Dynan’s consistently dim, musty lensing, in which the joyriding couple see the road beneath them paved over by grass and bright digital blossom. Save for when he’s quoting from the most unexpected literary source of Penelope Lively’s horticultural memoir “Life in the Garden,” Schrader’s writing here is often uncharacteristically naive, with plentiful plant-based metaphors filling in for insight, or worse still, wit: “I thought you had a green thumb, but it turns out you have a green middle finger,” spits Norma at Narvel, quite nonsensically.
Green or not, this “Master Gardener” is all fingers and thumbs for much of its running time, kept sporadically in order only by the stern, trusty presence of Edgerton himself. As for the wildly prolific Schrader, who surely still has better films than this in him, you wouldn’t begrudge him any garden leave, though you wouldn’t count on him taking it.
Best of Variety