This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 New York Film Festival. It has been republished in connection to the film’s theatrical release.
The Pitch: So there’s this stoic-looking man, sitting at a desk in a dark, spartan room, writing in his journal as we hear his thoughts in voiceover. That’s the set-up for Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener, as it was for his previous two films, The Card Counter and First Reformed. This was also the spirit, at least, of many other movies he has written and/or directed over the years, but his most recent unofficial trilogy takes on a ritualistic quality, as if Schrader is performing his version of stations of the cross, on progressively skimpier budgets.
The newest iteration stars Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth, head horticulturist at Gracewood Gardens, and though his routines appear regimented, he also seems closer to peace than previous versions of Schrader’s lonely man, played by Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac. At one of his stiffly formal meetings with his boss, estate owner Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), she assigns him a task—and for a moment, it seems like it could involve something violent or unseemly. Instead, she asks him to train her estranged grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) in his trade, to pull her away from a life of drugs and dissolution.
Make My Day: A grimly buttoned-up professional taking a troubled younger person under his wing might sound a bit like a Clint Eastwood movie; Eastwood even played another gardener in The Mule. (Maybe he and Narvel have run into each other at conventions.) Maya’s appearance functions as an admirably upfront admission that Schrader does not necessarily have his finger on the pulse of America’s youth: She appears in a tie-dyed t-shirt reading “No Bad Vibes,” with an ever-present pair of earbuds, a strange amalgamation of youth cultures through the ages.
Schrader must be at least partially in on the joke: “I bet there’s some juicy pictures of you on the web,” Mrs. Haverhill haughtily muses at one point, a line fairly characteristic of Schrader’s (intentionally?) stilted dialogue. Haverhill also refers to Maya as being of “mixed blood,” a discomfiting expression that hints at Narvel’s checkered past.
For when the camera catches him without his signature neat, sleeved-up outfit, it reveals a nasty surprise: a canvas of Nazi symbols and white-power slogans. Narvel was deep into this loathsome community at one point, and did loathsome things for them. Now, however, he’s trying to get clean, as it were, even if the tats won’t easily wash away. Schrader’s insistence on drawing his struggle as a parallel to Maya’s will probably rankle some; moreso as the movie continues, however tenderly.
Posting Through It: The schematic what-if nature of Master Gardener — there’s this white supremacist, but what if he regrets his actions and wants only to help a young woman of color, and what if that young woman feels drawn to him despite her skepticism, and what if redemption from sin were possible, and so on — make it resemble, at times, one of Schrader’s irascible, opinionated, unapologetic Facebook posts.
It’s not a good look, as the kids say, yet within its oddball limitations, the movie contains some lovely surprises. Chief among them: What if this inelegantly worded post of a movie, heavy with potential despair, is also a genteel light drama? (Maybe it is pretty Eastwoodian after all; it does feature some bad guys who come across more like teenage miscreants dressed up as adults than pitiless gangsters.)
There’s less mounting dread here than in Schrader’s previous movies, which could be taken as evidence that he’s too eager to forgive a racist criminal and indulge his observation that “gardening is a belief in the future.” Yet the movie has some transporting moments, like Edgerton and Swindell giving themselves over to an ecstatic, fantastical image of flowers sprouting up on a highway. That these beautiful, fleeting landscapes co-exist with a bunch of scenes set at cheap motels and diners only make them easier to treasure.
The Verdict: At its New York Film Festival premiere, an audience of critics, affectionately familiar with Schrader’s tendencies, laughed — in recognition, not derision — at Master Gardener’s familiar opening image of a reflective, serious man hunched over his writing desk.
It would be difficult to argue that this is anything but the least of Schrader’s trilogy; by nature and by design, Edgerton isn’t as electric as Hawke or Isaac, and the passion-play dramaturgy strains. But as he allows himself to drift from self-torture, Schrader finds some new, compellingly strange ways to tend this well-worn soil.
Where to Watch: Master Gardener debuted at the New York Film Festival in October 2022. It is in theaters beginning May 19th, 2023.