The opening credits of “Master Gardener”, the latest film from writer-director Paul
Schrader, play over images of flowers blooming before your very eyes. Against a
black backdrop, they blossom in succession, revealing their strange and wonderful
insides to the eager camera. The sheer beauty of a flower in bloom can make the
heart burst, but there is a sinister note hidden within these images. Such power
must be wielded wisely. Some flowers are toxic.
“Master Gardener” is filled with compelling imagery, precise and powerful
compositions, and half-formed characters that hold a fascinating film back from
greatness. It opens, like many other Schrader films (“First Reformed”, “The Card
Counter”), on a man at a desk writing in his journal. This time, it’s Narvel Roth
(Joel Edgerton), the meticulous horticulturist who lives and works on the estate of
Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), an aging heiress with no children.
The two characters are dissimilar in nature, as are the performances. As a man
hiding from his past in the science of the soil, Edgerton is minimal to the point of
inscrutability, while Weaver channels her chilly charisma into a whirlwind of
upper-class bitterness and resentment over lives unlived. Narvel works in the dirt
by day and writes in his journal at night. Norma is similarly isolated. She frets
about which family member will inherit her estate and takes her pleasures where
she can get them; Narvel eventually finds his way into her bed, although it’s
unclear whether he is motivated by genuine attraction or professional duty.
The question of inheritance leads Norma to invite her troubled grandniece Maya
(Quintessa Swindell) to visit and study the art of horticulture with Narvel. One day,
perhaps, Maya will take over ownership of the gardens. As Narvel trains her in the
field and in the classroom, we systematically receive glimpses of his buried past
that fill in the gaps of Edgerton’s sparse portrayal, and Maya’s perilous present,
which includes an abusive relationship with a drug dealer. It seems only a matter of
time before these timelines intersect in violent ways.
If it sounds a little familiar, well, that’s Schrader’s deal. The master filmmaker is
often criticized for employing the same fundamental narrative. There’s a middle-
aged man with a complex personal history seeking redemption for the mistakes of
his past. There’s a young woman in need of saving, although the protagonist will
have to dip into a long-buried past to do it. Criticize if you must, but there’s
something powerful about his committed use of motif, using a personal myth to
comment on the issues of the day. “First Reformed” was about industrial
malfeasance and environmental degradation. “The Card Counter” fit the Iraq War
and torture at Abu Gharib into its narrative. His repetition of this story proves its
utility and flexibility, but it also challenges the viewer to consider the nature of art.
All creators have their obsessions. Schrader has just made his literal.
As for the issues of the day, “Master Gardener” dances around issues of race that
feel both contemporary and antiquated; such is the American experience. Norma
speaks chillingly of her grandniece’s mixed racial background. The palatial estate
and the foregrounding of racial and class conflict suggest a link to America’s core
crimes made explicit when we learn of Norval’s history with white supremacist
groups. His relationship to them is not a simple one, nor is the film’s relationship
to race. Schrader’s impulses are never less than earnest, but his understanding of
the Black experience feels presumptuous at best, and at worst stuck in a
reactionary fantasy that looks at a woman of color and sees only a thing in need of
Seen more generously, Narvel and Maya are trying to save each other, and when
the film lingers on their burgeoning romance it achieves a euphoric state.
Schrader excels at portraying the rush of feeling that bursts free from a rigid
existence. In films like “Taxi Driver,” which he wrote before giving it to his friend
Martin Scorsese to direct, salvation comes only from cleansing violence. Over
time, he has made more room for genuine human connection, and it’s refreshing to
see him operating at a gentler pitch, using all the tools of cinema — color, motion,
and human performance — to convey the pure elation of existence. There is a
threat of violence in “Master Gardener,” but also a chance of transcendence.
The film hits these high notes with aplomb, but the pieces around it often fail to
coalesce. Increasingly, there are remainders in Schrader’s equation, borne perhaps
from a filmmaker more invested in the familiar beats of his preferred myth than the
details surrounding it. It’s unclear how much he really knows about horticulture or
race or white supremacy in America. More likely is that he learned just enough to
write the screenplay, and his lack of curiosity leads to a noticeable inertia. “Master
Gardener” is fascinating to think about, but it drags badly in its middle section, and
by the time you get to the third-act fireworks, it feels a little unearned. Far be it
from me to suggest Schrader find new soil in which to till, but the bloom just isn’t