Paul Schrader’s latest “God’s lonely man” tale wants to say something about race & redemption, but misses the mark.
Folks, maybe I’m wrong, but I just don’t think we’re ready for Nazi redemption stories yet. Granted, there have already been a few, but those were from a time when the threat was neutralized. Now, in our current upside down world, they’re being normalized by both the media and Republican politicians, some of whom, like Alabama Senator Tommy Tuberville, would rather pretend they don’t know what “white nationalism” is than denounce it. We really don’t need a “but what if they can change?” story right now. But Paul Schrader is doing it anyway with Master Gardener, a movie that is surely well-intentioned, but ill-timed at best, and clumsy and borderline offensive at worst.
Joel Edgerton is Narvel Roth, the titular master gardener. Typical of the Schrader protagonist, he’s a complicated loner, with a precise haircut that matches his precise nature. He’s devoted his life to tending the magnificent estate gardens of the fabulously wealthy Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), to the point where he even lives full-time on the property. As Narvel’s journals reflect, he knows his stuff, and spending time amongst the plants and loamy soil appears to be the only thing that gives him peace.
If you’re wondering why Narvel is covered from neck to ankles in fabric, while the other gardeners all wear light summer clothes, that’s soon revealed: his torso is heavily adorned in tattoos illustrating his now-renounced violent past as a neo-Nazi. We never learn how he became an expert horticulturist, or entered Mrs. Haverhill’s employ, but lovingly cultivating flowers is how he seeks to put his criminal misdeeds behind him.
Mrs. Haverhill is aware of this, and occasionally brings it up to Narvel, though whether it’s because she enjoys shaming him or because it maybe turns her on is unclear. It’s definitely at least a little bit of the latter, because the two of them also engage in some mistress-slave sex play. It’s an odd situation, made odder when Mrs. Haverhill tells Narvel that Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a grand-niece she barely knows (and seems to have little affection for) is coming to stay with her, and that Narvel should take her on as an apprentice gardener. Maya is “mixed blood,” as Mrs. Haverhill says (in the bizarre, archaic way many of the characters in Master Gardener speak), which is a definite drawback, but it’s also important that the gardens stay within the family after Mrs. Haverhill is gone.
Maya, like Narvel, is a troubled soul, though she’s struggling with drug addiction rather than a murderous past. Much to Mrs. Haverhill’s chagrin, the two grow close, so close that when Maya runs into trouble with some neighborhood creeps, Narvel must decide if he should resort to violence once more, but in the name of saving Maya rather than his former hateful beliefs.
While certainly well-made, and with reliably good performances from Edgerton and Weaver, it must be said: Master Gardener is a strange movie. It’s one part redemption drama, and one part revenge thriller, with a kinky twist, but also with an uplifting ending that feels a bit unearned. Though it takes place in the present (or something like it), the characters seem to exist out of time, with Narvel as the stoic cowboy and Mrs. Haverhill the fading Southern flower whose genteel old money facade masks a sinister side. The only innocent person in all this is Maya, but she doesn’t seem to have much of an internal life, existing mostly as a symbol of hope and forgiveness for Narvel.
It’s also, frankly, a bit tacky that Narvel’s road to atonement involves having a passionate sexual relationship with a beautiful young interracial woman who’s miraculously able to look past the swastikas and iron crosses all over his body. The same basic story could be told with Narvel taking on Mrs. Haverhill’s grand-nephew as an apprentice and developing a fatherly rather than romantic bond with him. As it is, there’s something a little too “Dear Penthouse Letters, I never dreamed this would happen to me” about the whole thing.
Again, I have no doubt that Schrader was quite sincere in his efforts. And whether or not some past beliefs cannot be forgiven regardless of what sort of upstanding citizen a person is now is a question worth asking. Regardless, when the barbarians are not just at the door, but instrumental in passing laws and teaching our children, it’s a big ask of the audience to be on the side of an ex-Nazi with Richard Spencer’s haircut (and who definitely killed people), and to want him to have a chance at a happy, fulfilling life, particularly when that life is with a woman young enough to be his daughter. In another time and place, Master Gardener maybe would have worked. But not here, and definitely not now.
Master Gardener opens in theaters May 19th.