The best point of Paul Schraders pensive and peculiar new film, Master Gardener, might not be a fabulously coiffed Sigourney Weaver leveling a Luger pistol at a reformed Neo-Nazi in the sitting room of her plantation mansionbut it sure does register potently. Weaver, in an accumulation of fashionably prim outfits, cuts through this modest film with electric verve. As Norma Haverhill, an heiress to a family group estate and its own prized flower gardens, Weaver reaches her flinty finest; its the type of role shes had much too little of the century.
She isnt the primary focus of the film, though. While we wonder why Normas dear departed daddy had a Third Reich collectible to begin with, the films bigger question is that of Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton). Hes the titular horticulturist, who manages the propertys well-kept grounds.
Narvel is calm, confident, knowledgeable, but theres a haunt in his eyes. Just like the hero of Schraders last film, the coolly mesmerizing The Card Counter, Narvel includes a bitterly regretted past, one hes attempting to atone for by lovingly and conscientiously maintaining just a little patch of earth. Schrader shows us whats plaguing Narvel pretty in early stages in the film. Undressing in his caretakers cottage one evening, Narvel reveals his shirtless torso, covered in white supremacist tattoos.
Narvel was a negative guy once, and Master Gardener depicts the slow work of his learning to be a better one. Edgerton, with a sonorous, Sean Penn-esque growl, makes a compelling case for his characters newfound decency. Narvel carries himself with a practiced, world-weary gentility. Hes caring but firm with Norma, who is aware of his past and appears to dangle it before him as both threat and perverse foreplay. That is all, we have been subtly reminded, occurring on which was likely once a slave plantation. Schrader considers these white people because they stand in the wreckage of these historytheir own and their countryswith a dispassionate, analytical gaze.
The worthiness of this type of narrative will probably be determined by the beholder. Master Gardener will not issue its proclamations or moral judgments. The film recognizes the horror and cruelty of Narvels past, nonetheless it is primarily worried about imagining what might lie from then on ideology has been forsaken. Will there be redemption for this type of man?
Narvels tightly held equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a grand-niece of Normas who has been hired as a gardening apprentice in the hopes that it’ll rescue her from the troubled existence. Her mother, now dead, was a drug addict, an illness offered to her daughter. Maya is half-Black, which without doubt complicates Normas view of her. Thats never said outright in the film, but its certainly part of the strain that hangs over every interaction between your two womena sense of unspoken difference, of latent mistrust.
Norma confides to Narvel that she hopes Maya might 1 day dominate the gardens; she really wants to keep carefully the family legacy alive after shes gone. Which implies, somewhat anyway, that Norma is wanting to transcend old prejudices, but only conditionally. This is the arresting ambiguity of Schraders film, this portrait of individuals existing in uncertain dialogue with the context these were born into. Narvel and Norma are peers on a spectrum, while Maya appears to represent a means out.
Which isnt exactly fair to Maya, in the same way it isnt for just about any person of color organized as a token of white peoples enlightenment. Schrader seems alert to that undue burden, even though he perhaps too blithely pushes Narvel and Maya together. Violence eventually enters the picture, since it frequently does in Schraders films, which brings Master Gardener perilously near admiring Narvels lethal skills. Schrader pulls back, though, before things get too Taken. Betterment isn’t earned with a gun (or with pruning shears), but with the determined choice to leave from the cycleto disavow it in both word and, moreover, deed.
A lot of Master Gardener is disarmingly placid. Its a warmer, more optimistic film than one might expect, even though it does sometimes creak with the antiquated perspective of a stalwart septuagenarian filmmaker unwilling to get rid of a few of the pasts bad habits. Maybe Master Gardener is merely some old white guy minimizing racism as malleable character flaw. (In the average person and in the torso politic.) But I believe Schrader is on a sharper, more salient tack than that. He could be investigating one microcosm, one little terrarium, where the system has been questioned and resolutely challenged. If Narvels journey from the rot could be cultivated to full bloom, then maybe numerous others elsewhere could be, too. Piece by piece, change you can do in true and tangible ways.
All having said that, this assessment of Master Gardener could risk over-thought. It is a spare film, crisply performed and quietly staged. Weavers crackling grande dame imperiousnessmenacing and strangely pitiablemay be adequate to transport the viewer away. But Schrader at the very least really wants to prickle in us a knowledge of where it really is, exactly, were being carried to.