As the third film of a trilogy led by critical hits First Reformed and The Card Counter, Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener has a lot to live up to. First Reformed was renowned for its weighty contemplation of faith and existentialism while The Card Counter was a more grounded story revolving around justice and temptation. As expected, Master Gardener lingers on a number of themes common to the trilogy, temptation and redemption being two key themes here, but has a story ill-suited for being able to build upon any of the groundwork set by First Reformed and The Card Counter.
In Master Gardener, Joel Edgerton stars as the titular gardener, Narvel Roth, at Gracewood Gardens, an estate owned by the dowager Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). He has a deep knowledge of botany coming from over a decade of work at Gracewood Gardens. Tending to the Gardens, he is gentle in his movement and taciturn in his speech. Roth is a man of few words, that is, words to others. In the evenings, he muses on the parallels between gardening and life through writing in his journal, and it is the comparison he makes between a bloom and the firing of a gun that indicate Roth has a much more sinister past than his occupation would let on. Schrader reveals that Roth was a neo-Nazi, and any sympathy or affinity we might have for Roth is immediately extinguished.
Roth is summoned to Mrs. Haverhill’s house, and is informed that Mrs. Haverhill’s great niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) will be taking up an apprenticeship at the Gardens which Roth will oversee. It is clear that Mrs. Haverhill could care less about her great niece; she didn’t care for her mother. Mrs. Haverhill informs Roth that Maya has “lifestyle issues” and is mingling with the wrong crowd. Mrs. Haverhill is severe in her judgment of others, but holds a sweet spot for Roth. Sickly sweet. She trusts Roth with ensuring that Maya becomes acclimated to work at the Gardens. She would expect nothing less.
When meeting Maya for the first time, Roth can see she is a fish out of water. Nonetheless, Maya quickly becomes accustomed to working at the Gardens and with her fellow coworkers. She becomes inquisitive and probes into Roth and his past. And when she arrives at work one morning with injuries to her face from her abusive boyfriend, Roth is stirred to respond.
The trio of saviorhood, personal redemption, and exploitation are central to Master Gardener. We find out that Mrs. Haverhill knows of Roth’s past and that Roth meets regularly with a police handler who monitors Roth’s wellbeing. Mrs. Haverhill and Roth’s relationship has a physical component, and it’s suggested that Mrs. Haverhill regards herself as a savior of sorts for Roth. At the Gardens, Roth no longer has a connection to his repulsive past. He is sheltered. But when Maya is introduced and shows a romantic interest in Roth, he becomes unsettled though in his view it is out of love.
With Roth and Maya’s forming relationship, Schrader portrays Roth as unreliable in his narration. Immediately after being shown rebuking an advance from Maya, Roth is shown adjusting his pants upon leaving her cabin. Mrs. Haverhill is observant of this and expels Roth and Maya from the Garden, and neither Roth nor Maya is dismissive of what she claims to have seen. Our ‘Adam and Eve’ take the road in a meandering foray from motel to motel, and their connection becomes stronger despite Roth revealing his Nazi tattoos to Maya. Maya is shaken – she is biracial and Roth is demonstratedly not an upgrade from her thuggish boyfriend despite Roth’s care for her as she detoxes (his wish, not hers). She questions why he had kept the tattoos, though in a moment of intimacy she persuades him, with no hesitation on his part, to have them removed.
While much of the story and editing of Master Gardener is brutish, Edgerton, Weaver and Swindell bring honest attempts to their roles. More than the other two films of Schrader’s trilogy, the relationship between man and woman is troubling. Through the impact of Mrs. Haverhill and Maya in his life, Roth is steered towards salvation, but there is unsettling exploitation between all parties in Master Gardener that prevents the film from having the nuance of First Reformed or The Card Counter. Maya is no angel herself, and almost falls victim to violent temptation. She even enables Roth’s destructiveness.
Though Paul Schrader attempts to round off his trilogy with an ambitious narrative, Master Gardener falls flat. It’s hard to tell what impression Schrader is attempting to make on his audience, and my only reasonable guess is provocation. But any true provocative film has an element of the unexpected to it. Here, there is none. Expect the worst and your expectations will easily be gratified. And there’s one particularly nasty detail that can’t be left out: Maya is twenty years Roth’s junior.
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