If gardening is the art of manipulating crops, those with roots and blossoms that require scrupulous nurturing, then horticulturist Narvel Roth is the best and worst guy for the job in writer-director Paul Schrader’s silently haunting minimalist epic, “Master Gardener.”
Played by a brooding and elegantly sturdy Joel Edgerton, Narvel Roth seems suited for the job on the one hand, as he is the meticulous kind. With a strikingly angular face, slim-fit overalls, not a hair out of place in his neatly parted cut and a name as peculiarly formal as its owner, you could almost sniff Narvel’s thoroughness in every plant and flora he tends to.
Then again, perhaps he is not all that suited for the post, either. A shady past as a former neo-Nazi and tough-guy-for-hire haunts Narvel, despite his current honorable occupation at the stately mansion, Gracewood Gardens. How could he be expected to rip out the weeds of a garden when he still has his own demons to be weeded out and a guilty conscience to be healed?
As obvious as it is “damaged human beings are like gardens in need” is the metaphor at the heart of Schrader’s latest, a soulful ending to the filmmaker’s unofficial trilogy that includes the intriguing “First Reformed” (2017) and frustratingly shallow “The Card Counter” (2021). Like Martin Scorsese’s masterful “Taxi Driver,” among Schrader’s most famous credits as a screenwriter, all three of these movies give us a portrait of a quiet, highly methodical lonesome man with internal battles.
Except “Master Gardener” plays differently in a welcome way when compared to the other two entries of the trilogy that seem to have branched out of Travis Bickle. For starters, its queries about racism, redemption, gender and generational dynamics feel honest, precisely because they feel neither definitively formed nor packaged with a pretty bow, overeager to always say the right thing.
In other words, there is something sincere about witnessing Schrader try to make sense of the contemporary world around him, sometimes clumsily but never less than truthfully. Unlike “First Reformed” or “The Card Counter” this one feels hopeful in the aftermath; a breath of well-earned positivity in an ugly world (both the real one and the one Schrader conjured up) that can use some of it.
But there is no forgetting the ugliness in “Master Gardener,” and Schrader is quick to give us scenes with a shirtless Narvel in the privacy of his cabin, exposing his disturbing white supremacists tattoos. We learn later on that Narvel had looked into getting them removed, but it isn’t explained why he still wears them on his skin. Perhaps they are sobering reminders of his shameful past, a way to keep his guilt alive.
His employer Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver with a quietly chilling command) doesn’t seem to mind them all the same, if their quid-pro-quo sexual trysts are any indication. Dressed like a wealthy, Reagan-era right-winger—all pearls, ankle-length pleats and cardigans dangling over her shoulders—and a vocabulary that is casually racist and sexist, she might even be secretly endorsing Narvel’s tattoos for all we know. Schrader’s vision of her isn’t shy about suggesting this, a decision that considerably dials up the movie’s studious aura of discomfort present everywhere, from the unnervingly symmetrical garden to the white-pillared mansion, no doubt a slavery-era plantation.
The routine changes in Gracewood with the arrival of Maya (a fantastic Quintessa Swindell), Norma’s biracial grandniece who has a troubled family history that Norma feels responsible for. But when she invites Maya over to stay at Gracewood and learn gardening from Narvel, her helpful act naturally reeks of white-saviorism. In fact, her demeanor towards Maya seems so haughty that you never quite know why someone as spirited and intelligent as Maya would agree to her terms. Perhaps because she has her own troubles with drugs and shady figures she’s gotten mixed up with? Would her options out there be any better?
When the tensions rise upon the unlikely romantic union of Maya and Narvel, Schrader pulls from other elements of his playbook, sending Narvel outside of the safety of the gardens to the real brutal world to defend Maya (violently, if necessary), giving the film’s alarmingly serene disposition thus far a jolt of energy it desperately needs. Often, you wish for a sturdier handle on the romance between Maya and Narvel; a better reason why Maya stays with him even after seeing his tattoos and far fewer of Schrader’s inelegant flashbacks.
But the film’s overarching ambiguousness, its lack of definitive rights or wrongs makes it worthy of consideration despite such miscalculations. That searching quality is also why you forgive Schrader’s sense of naïveté elsewhere, like a hallucinatory scene where Narvel and Maya find themselves on a nighttime drive through glistening flowers and a failed attempt at comedy manifested on a male social worker’s t-shirt that reads, “We Should All Be Feminists!”
In the end, “Master Gardener” is ripe with seeds of ideas on the verge of blossoming into something beguiling, maybe even generously healing. What a way for Schrader to close the loop on his long line of tortured men.