A relatively clunky and implausible character study about a troubled man attempting to atone for his past deeds is served up with mixed results in Paul Schrader’s Master Gardner. Channeling his own work, in which themes often occur of lone-wolf male protagonists who go down a self-destructive abyss from the ferocious forces of the outside world, Schrader’s latest film certainly holds some of Schrader’s greatest traits while taking a different approach with the material as it becomes more of a contemplative journey towards redemption for his protagonist. Of course, every Schrader film comes with elements of intensity as his male protagonists encounter unforeseen junctions that certainly test his vindication along the way. Shrader’s latest echoes a lot of the commonalities of his former work, as it even trends in a different arc as it’s about a former white supremacist who has denounced his hateful ways and has found redemption in society after being a secretive informant in the witness protection program.
Where Schrader’s wounded male protagonists are often in a state of demise, Schrader’s character transformation is actually on the moral upswing while still facing similar crises and conundrums along the way. While Schrader builds up a compelling narrative with strong potential that explores the origins of prejudice, the film derails with an uneven second half that includes flimsy contrivances, tacked-on character motivations, and some shabby writing for his female characters that blunders along the way. In other words, Schrader’s 24th feature disappoints in delivering what could have been a galvanizing package.
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Master Gardener has been labeled as the third film in Schrader’s “lonely man in crisis” trilogy that started with First Reformed (2018) and continued with The Card Counter (2021), and the trilogy comes to an end with Master Gardener. Although these similarities go all the way back to his screenwriting days of Rolling Thunder, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, where he eventually became a film director of similar films with such titles as Hardcore, American Gigolo, Mishima, Affliction, and Auto Focus, which were all about troubled men who pontificate their traumas with existential admissions that lead down a path of tragic and violent consequences. Not only is Schrader an auteur who revisits these same traits, but he has also built a whole subgenre of male alienation that we have seen modeled in many other films since.
Like his other films, Schrader returns to his philosophical voice-over narration, moral conundrums, and dialogue-heavy set pieces that border between feeling literary and overly stylized. Paul Schrader has always been a respected storyteller of tour-de-force narratives with complex characters. In many ways, he is like a rock star who always returned to his greatest licks throughout the course of his career. Some might say he’s a rock star doing the same routine in different ways, but if that is still the case, then it’s starting to look like Schrader might have now entered his fat Elvis stage.
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
The crime thriller begins in a large-scale country house with spacious gardens in the south that certainly used to be a plantation house. The property has been passed down to Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy matron of the estate who has a chief gardener named Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who maintains the gardens on the property. Navel is ardently interested in gardening and horticulture. Norma also gets her physical needs met with Narvel on the side, where their relationship goes beyond grande dame and gardener to mistress-servant with no strings attached as Narvel also has his own room on the property. Narvel, like so many of Schrader’s characters, narrates the story. In Master Gardener, Narvel explains how flowers grow and gives historical insights into gardens in sharp prose with emotiveness. These insights into flowers and gardening are metaphors that show how gardens constantly evolve, just like humanity and like Narvel himself, which sets up the spine of the story.
The stories of race relations, Narvin’s transformation, and the motifs of gardens reflecting human progress become the center of Schrader’s narrative. These come into fruition as tensions subtly begin to arise after Norma informs Narvel that he will take her grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice in his garden work. There is certainly some past bigotry that Norma has against Maya’s bi-racial background, but Norma has evolved. Narvin also has a racist and hateful past of being in an anti-government militia that held white supremacist beliefs and plotted to overthrow the government and had targets on people of color. Narvin has also evolved, even though he still has his tattoos of swastikas, Confederate flags, and white power written on his body. Schrader frames the tattooed body in similar ways Cronenberg did in Eastern Promises. Maya arrives in a world of past sins, as Norma keeps her distance until she gets situated.
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Once Maya enters the story, the narrative begins to falter. Not because it isn’t a successful build-up, because it really is, but because Schrader’s writing seems out of tune with the young character. Maya, who is in her early to mid-20s in the film, ends up falling for Narvel, which creates a rift between Norma and Maya. Her character ends up just becoming a symbol of youth rather than an intricate one, as Schrader fails to give her any edge. Her characterization actually feels dull, and Schrader should have put his ego aside and got a skillful female screenwriter to write her scenes.
With that, the film sidesteps with a tacked-on romance with Maya and Narvel that doesn’t come off convincing. Not just with the age gap, which happens in life in spite of how creepy Gen Z and Twitter claim it to be, and film should never restrict any material, no matter how uncomfortable it can make us feel. At any rate, Maya ends up becoming more like a mannequin for Schrader’s theme of atonement and transformation for his protagonist. There is so much more potential for Schrader to pull off his themes of rebirth that he didn’t need a romance. The material would have held deeper resonance had the relationship been more planktonic or even if the material played off more as a father-daughter dynamic in the vein of Million Dollar Baby. Which leads Maya to discover Naven’s brutal past after seeing his tattoos on his torso, which he often covers up with long-sleeve shirts. After rightfully confronting him about his tattoos and why he never removed them, Navel just responds, “I looked into it,” in which he still has tattoos because he is an active informant for the FBI, where he tips off information about other white supremacists in return for holding a different alias. Perhaps Navel still keeps the tattoos as a permanent mark to remind him of his inescapable vile roots.
Courtesy Magnolia Pictures
Maya eventually comes to terms with Narvel’s past, and even the intimate scene in the film feels ill-advised where Navel ends up giving Maya oral pleasure, which has the potential to hold some power dynamics in the imagery, but with the context and how poorly written the second half becomes, it ends up feeling like we’re seeing Schrader play out one of his old-man fantasies of being with a younger woman. Schrader also gives no insights and isn’t interested in any cultural differences between these two characters, as the relationship feels more like a hollow afterthought in how Navel sheds his racism.
It’s such a disappointment how she is written in the film. It’s revealed that she is a drug addict, but there is nothing in the performance, in the character, or even in the psychology that suggests Maya is a drug addict. Sure, she is a troubled youth that comes to work on Norma’s property, and addicts can hide their dependency, but there isn’t even an ounce of ambiguity or subtly for that to come through in the narrative. It’s also revealed that Norma is in trouble with a drug gang, which allows Schrader to once again channel some Travis Bickle elements, and Navel ends up becoming Maya’s protector. Sadly, none of this works due to how poorly written Maya is. Let’s face it: Schrader has always been more skilled at writing lonely male characters. But even with the Navel character, we never really feel his transformation or get a glimpse of his wicked past aside from some arbitrary flashbacks that feel lifted out of a made-for-TV movie where we see Navel interact with other white supremacists. The character arc never reaches the disturbing heights of, say, Edward Norton’s Derek Vinyard character in American History X, which the story desperately needed to succeed.
Paul Schrader is certainly aiming to put a different spin on a genuine human redemption story. The result: a stilted, forced, and unconvincing interracial drama. There is so much potential in the buildup—it just eventually derails with so many ill-advised creative detours in spite of Edgerton and Weaver’s gripping performances. The film needed so much more in the transformation, in the exposition, in the characterizations, and in the relationship that feels way too laborious to engage. Schrader has always been a thinker, and this time he certainly overthought the material.
The Master Gardener opens in limited theaters Friday, May 17th, 2023