Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Quintessa Swindell, Sigourney Weaver
Synopsis: A meticulous horticulturist who is devoted to tending the grounds of a beautiful estate and pandering to his employer, the wealthy dowager.
Both our shared, and separate, racial history in this country has provided continual fodder for entertainment, shock value, and, in the best of cases, actual thought provoking conversation. Of course, many of these pieces of art age poorly. What was enlightening just a few decades ago, now seems trite and wildly out of touch (I’m looking at you Crash and American History X). Additionally, our own culture can be tone deaf in seeking out reasons for abhorrent behavior. It was not long ago that our media was inundated with stories humanizing white supremacy and hatred. The desire is understandable; the behavior is disgusting and, we hope, bordering on inhumane. But our history tells us that this is false, that there has always been a breeding ground for white supremacy. These attitudes may be barbaric, but they do possess human qualities, unfortunately. But here we are, in 2023, with yet another story of humanizing an (ex) racist.
Paul Schrader, the scribe behind fabulous films like Taxi Driver and First Reformed, has returned with Master Gardener. Regretfully, this film is not even close to being in the category of the aforementioned films. Master Gardener is not without merit in terms of visuals and performances, but the script itself, at a minimum, borders on the offensive. The film tells the story of an ex-white Nationalist, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who turned state’s evidence after a crisis of conscience and is living as a gardener at a palatial estate. Now, let me be specific. He is a gardener at a plantation. This is the first of many unsubtle decisions at the script level from Schrader, specifically connected to race and history.
Edgerton is truly fantastic in this role, however. He has made a pattern of understated roles that depend more on physicality and silence than extended dialogue. Every movement that Roth makes is a specific choice from Edgerton, all the way down to the way he drinks from a cup, and immediately feels out of place around the old money of the owner, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). The sometimes physical relationship between these two is perhaps the most interesting in the film. Norma is just as racist as Narvel supposedly was, but it is couched in proper behavior and moneyed comfort. Weaver’s performance, as she seems to devour the racism on his skin, evident by the tattoos he refuses to get removed, is a terrifying thing to watch.
The problems with Master Gardener begin with the introduction of Norma’s grandniece, a troubled young woman, as his assistant. Maya (Quintessa Swindell), although impressive, is saddled with an impossible role. Frankly, she becomes the embodiment of Narvel’s forgiveness and change. She is a manic pixie dream girl but for sad racists. The quickness of her turn later in the movie is comically insulting. The script pays lip service to her difficulties but allows him to be a white knight, swooping in to save her, making actual growth from her to be impossible. The idea of using a young Black woman as a prop to forgive a white nationalist for his heinous past is misguided at best.
Of course, there are moments of bliss, even in this mess. Schrader is a talented filmmaker and coaxes great performances from talented actors. Paired with cinematographer Alexander Dynan, he is also able to show us the inherent and changing beauty of nature. The opening credits alone, showcasing the life cycles of stunning flora, is enough to make a viewer gasp. As a nature documentary, paired with some history of gardening from Edgerton’s voiceover, Master Gardener is calming and reassuring. Unfortunately, this also serves as perhaps the most obvious film symbolism in decades. Narvel has been raised in hatred, but is finding a way to be reborn in the rich soil of forgiveness, change, and growth.
There are many films that have spurred important dialogue on race in America. Master Gardener falls short of this, preferring to blanket forgive monstrosity as long as the monster feels bad. Mileage will always vary, but the idea of using Black characters to prop up and advance a man bathed in hatred is sickening. Master Gardener needed more time for these characters to grow, or it needed a writer interested in his Black characters as more than just signposts towards humanizing monsters.