Writer-director Paul Schrader gives us yet another quiet, tortured man in Narvel Roth. Read our Master Gardener review.
Paul Schrader has built a career around exploring and trying to understand complicated, silent men who suffer from the sins of men. His first solo script was for Martin Scorsese’s iconic Taxi Driver, and he collaborated with the director again for Raging Bull.
While he’s never really lost his groove, the early 2000s were clearly a period when Schrader wasn’t as connected with his craft. 2007’s The Walker, the fourth instalment in Schrader’s unofficial night workers series, never reached the highs of Taxi Driver or American Gigolo. Still, the writer-director’s return to form was 2017’s impeccable First Reformed, starring a haunted Ethan Hawke as a man of God who loses faith in humanity.
Master Gardener seems thematically similar to First Reformed and 2021’s The Card Counter, starring Oscar Isaac. This time it’s Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s turn to play a man suffering in silence and contemplating his past.
Narvel Roth (Edgerton) is the – you guessed it! – master gardener for Gracewood Gardens, owned by the lavishly wealthy Mrs Haversham (Sigourney Weaver). Not only does he garden for Mrs Haversham, he also tends to her sexual needs, but when Mrs Haversham’s great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) arrives at the estate to be trained by Narvel, it threatens to reveal Roth’s violent past.
It’s not a spoiler to say we quickly find out Narvel is a former neo-Nazi. It’s a bold move from Schrader to challenge the audience’s ability for empathy with such a thorny lead. Maya, who is of “mixed blood”, as Mrs Haversham states, clearly reminds Narvel of his past, especially as the two embark on an unlikely, slightly provocative romance.
Master Gardener awkwardly tip-toes the line between a romance and a thriller, not succeeding in either genre. It’s weirdly void of tension, and although the theme of guilt is strong, it’s also strangely vague. The issue with the central romance isn’t the slightly troubling age difference but the lack of any spark between Swindell and Edgerton.
Master Gardener isn’t as searing as First Reformed or as magnetic as The Card Counter. Roth’s inner life never seems quite as rich or complex as the men in Schrader’s previous films. Edgerton turns in a physically impressive but emotionally void performance. He lacks the intensity of Hawke and Isaac, who played a huge part in making Schrader’s two previous directorial efforts so successful.
There is a tenderness to Master Gardener’s narrative. The film’s best scenes happen when Narvel is gardening or talking about gardening. They’re almost therapeutic in nature. It’s during these scenes that Master Gardener feels like a portrait of a real person with real feelings. During the more dramatic scenes, Schrader’s writing is tightly constructed and rarely resembles the way people really talk about their feelings.
It’s also very difficult to digest Master Gardener’s narrative. No film ever exists in a void; it’s hard to shake the news stories of the rise of fascism around the world as we watch this hopeful, romanticised story of redemption for a former white supremacist.
Perhaps that’s the point, maybe we are supposed to be challenged by the narrative and Narvel’s character arc, but it’s hard to believe Maya would be able to look past the massive, multiple swastika tattoos on Narvel’s body as they have sex. Master Gardener never reaches the highs of Schrader’s previous work. It’s a misguided attempt to once again explore guilt in a world full of evil.
Master Gardener is in UK cinemas 26 May.