MASTER GARDENER Review: A Kind of Staid Pastiche
Director Paul Schrader's new film stars Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Quintessa Swindell.
In Master Gardener, filmmaker Paul Schrader's explorations into macho-masculinity once again end in noble humiliation, an empty embrace, after whirligiging through the bare, lamplit rooms of a dull man's psyche.
Joel Edgerton is Narvel ('vernal') Roth, a suave, short-cropped horticulturist with the weltschmerz of an old gunslinger. In the daytime he looks after Gracewood Gardens, a vast Palladian estate, likely a former colonial plantation, owned by prim dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), for whom he also provides companionship and occasional sexual favors. In the evening, as all of Schrader's protagonists are wont to do, he sits alone in his room and jots down the day's affairs -- "Overnight, black aphids appeared, growing on the tips of the dropmore scarlet..." -- and a few grand aphorisms, such as: "The seeds of love grow like the seeds of hate").
And all is well at Gracewood until Norma asks Narvel to take on a new apprentice, her grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who fell in with the wrong crowd after her mother's death and has subsequently developed what we are told is a serious drug problem, though its effects appear to be limited to just looking a bit sleepy every now and then.
Maya soon develops a fondness for Narvel, but her presence greatly yet mysteriously discomfits him. We soon find out why: some years ago, under a different name, Narvel belonged to a white pride organization, for which he carried out a number of hits. Since then, his views have moderated and he has taken up gardening, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, his body is still covered with tattoos of Nazi slogans and insignia, a sight which becomes increasingly difficult to conceal as his relationship with Maya intensifies.
Both the form and style of the tension that follows are unmistakably Schraderian: we get the usual side by side ('confessional') seating, the front-on speaking shots, the succession of hands, à la Pickpocket and L'Argent, and the slow vertical pans across plain edifices. But more importantly, we get something that is touched upon by critics Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López in their essay, Paul Schrader's Manhood: "Although there is some agony of guilt and remorse in his films...there is also something undeniably, even proudly sleazy: in other words, a pleasant drifting-along with an amoral attitude, strictly neither good nor evil."
Schrader establishes this 'enjoyable remove' when Maya finds out about Narvel's murderous past. At first, she is frustrated and upset, though not especially angry or afraid; after some assurances that he will have his tattoos removed, she forgives him and moves on, apparently forgetting the half-dozen corpses for which he's responsible. From that point onwards, we drift about in a fantasy world in which killing a reverend is a misdemeanor but trashing flowers is a capital offense.
There is an even greater falsity running through the film; namely, the idea that through his relationship with Maya and the cathartic violence it offers, Narvel can come to terms with who he is and thus liberate himself from his racist ideology. It's this ostensibly pleasant Driving Miss Daisy dream that plays out in the film's final sequence, in which Narvel and Maya slowdance on the porch after sticking it Norma. Their bodies sway and unite while some poignant but uplifting music plays, and there is a definite sense that they have defeated something, that Narvel has succeeded in becoming a pure, righteous man, absolved of the crimes of his past.
Sweet as it may be, there is nonetheless a hollowness to this finale, for the simple fact that there is no liberation here, no true freedom from racism or fascism or any other ideological structure. There is only the quiet displacement of Narvel's desire onto a new object: Maya's victimhood.
Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (for which Schrader wrote the screenplay), Narvel dreams of saving a vulnerable woman from harm (here, two dorky drug dealers who look like it's their first day on the job). What is the aim of this passage à l'acte? It is not, as the film tries to imply, Maya's wellbeing or universal justice or some kind of ultra-liberal crusade, but is instead the simple desire to be desired by others, to be seen as a hero. (In terms of ideology, it is the desperate attempt to resolve through action some unsettled interior discourse.)
Within this hero fantasy, Maya's victimhood has a dual role: it is both an obstacle to desire and the cause of desire itself; for in order to be seen as a hero, one must liberate someone from harm; but as soon as one succeeds, there is no longer anyone left to liberate, and the fantasy breaks down. There is thus an incentive to keep the victim in their victimhood so that the fantasy can be enjoyed again and again. Needless to say, Maya's role as an instrument -- the instrument -- to this enjoyment is totally at odds with the closing image of the free, liberated couple who have supposedly transcended their differences and are 'in it together'.
Despite these issues, there is plenty to admire in Master Gardener. Ben Rodriguez Jr.'s editing, for example, is a feast of rhythmic montage; and Alexander Dynan's tenebrous cinematography perfectly captures the tones of First Reformed and The Card Counter (which, together with Master Gardener, form an unofficial trilogy), but is not without its own innovations.
Likewise, the performances by Edgerton, Swindell and Weaver are controlled and affecting when the script allows. Indeed, there are certain lines that might never have worked without Edgerton's subtly comic deadpan ("You know, pruning shears, they can snap off a branch or a plant bulb just like that. Same time it takes to snap off a finger, or some testicles") or Weaver's queenly comportment ("I leave this thing that I have inherited and maintained...I leave it in your hands").
Some lines, however, are truly beyond saving: "I didn't think you were going to be Humbert Humbert in your own production of Lolita"; "I thought you had a green thumb, not a green middle finger"; "I've never thought too much about women other than as women" (this one is especially telling).
What's clear from Master Gardener -- and from everything since Light Sleeper -- is that Schrader's pryings into what is most fragile and explosive in the male ego, and his bold stagings of the violent interface between belief and rationality, don't sting or shock like they used to. Instead, they have lapsed into a kind of staid pastiche, not of contemporary trends, styles or genres, but of the fierce, self-conscious, self-annihilating cinema that he himself once daringly pioneered.
The film opens Friday, May 19, in select U.S. theaters via Magnolia Pictures.