Paul Schrader proudly has little concern with how likable he, or his work, is. For his fans this is part of the joy, finding delight in his prickly Facebook posts and reveling in the black, gnarled heart beating at the center of much of his oeuvre. After the recent existential nightmare of “First Reformed” and last year’s stunningly cruel psychodrama “The Card Counter,” which also premiered on the Lido, Schrader returns to Venice to receive an Honorary Golden Lion award and regale the audience with another gritty tale of redemption. He spoke about “Master Gardener” with his signature nihilist wink and told IndieWire, “This one is going to piss people off. Obama’s not putting it on his top 10 list.”
It is with those expectations, and knowing how dark Schrader is capable of going, that his loyal audience will be bracing themselves for cruelty when “Master Gardener begins. But, while the central character’s arc will likely launch a dreaded “discourse,” there is a tenderness to “Master Gardener” that may prove its biggest surprise.
Joel Edgerton plays the title role as Narvel Roth, a reserved and meticulous gardener who runs the grounds of the grand Gracewood estate along with a small but committed team. The estate is owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) who swans into every scene with a perfectly coiffed helmet of hair and waspy panache. Their concerns may seem of little consequence, talking about preparations for a gala and the orchids they plan to auction off, but the oedipal tension between them is immediately unnerving. Outside of the opening credits, which feature time-lapsed flowers vividly blooming against a black backdrop, the gardens themselves seem cold and drained of color. Even trips to supposedly spectacular gardens feature dusty-toned hedges and the browning stems of conspicuously pruned roses against an overcast sky.
The botanical passion of our protagonist is revisited in (occasionally heavy-handed) metaphors when Narvel ponderously writes in his diaries that “gardening is a bridge to the future,” “the seeds of love grow like the seeds of hate,” or “I found a life in gardens, how unlikely is that?” But meditative contemplation on botany aside, life really starts anew for Narvel when Norma asks him to take on her estranged “mixed-blood” grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), whose parents have died and is in need of a job and an opportunity to turn her life around.
Upon Maya’s arrival at Gracewood, Schrader leans into a transfixing time-traveling aesthetic. Gracewood’s exact location is never explicit but it seems to exist in its own dimension, with the action only leaving the grounds once until its final act. The house itself is a giant neo-classical structure, the gardens are tended to by a largely non-white workforce which hints at an antebellum rot in the foundation. Meanwhile the palatial home’s interiors have a surprisingly spartan modernity, complete with striking jellyfish wallpaper that seems stripped from the walls of an avant-garde hotel. Norma herself seems distinctly of the 1950s, wearing glamorous dresses with nipped in waists; a pre-occupation with good manners; and a stiff Manhattan cocktail permanently near t0 hand. Narvel seems to reside in the 1930s complete with stiff side-parted hair and utilitarian clothing, living in a small Depression era shack on the grounds. Meanwhile Maya feels plucked from 1970s counter culture, arriving in bright tie-dye, round sunglasses and ripped jeans.
This only becomes more intriguing as the film continues, even though it is technically set in the present, each character seemingly rooted in the outlook of distinct eras of American history. When eventually taken out of the Gracewood bubble Schrader makes them appear as unwelcome interlopers, sat puzzled across from men wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “We Should All Be Feminists” and never quite able to stay in step with the contemporary world.
For those of us who have been paying attention to the work of Australian actor Joel Edgerton, it is no surprise that he is absolutely phenomenal in the role. Schrader’s knack for complicated anti-heroes, which arguably apexed in the 1970s when he wrote “Taxi Driver” and made his directorial debut in “Blue Collar,” is an archetype Edgerton was clearly born to play. Schrader has continued to give contemporary stars like Ethan Hawke, Oscar Isaac, and now Edgerton a chance to show off the wide range of their abilities, able to remain wholly human while performing deep wells of inner turmoil and hard-earned redemption.
Edgerton’s face has a particular knack for looking haunted with near skeletally sharp cheekbones and deep set blue eyes. Even when confidently relaying lessons about horticulture to a captive audience, Edgerton keeps one toe dipped in trauma. Those not lucky enough to have caught his exemplary work in “The Underground Railroad,” “Loving,” and “It Comes at Night” may be shocked to discover that the man who was widely mocked for portraying Egyptian King Rameses is actually one of Hollywood’s most striking and versatile leading men.
The bulk of the narrative is concerned with unspooling Narvel’s troubled path and the redemptive relationship he forms with Maya. For those familiar with Schrader there may be slight disappointment in yet another female romantic interest that represents potential salvation for a troubled man. But there is such sweetness in the tentative bond that develops between the two characters it gives Swindell the opportunity to layer in rich complexity to her role. Even at its climax her inner-turmoil keeps us guessing as to just what she is capable of. Weaver is, perhaps unsurprisingly, fascinating as the cruel and petty wealthy dowager. In terms of brutality the film’s most violent moments still pale in comparison to Weaver quivering a lip before hissing a damning indictment of “impertinent” or “obscene.”
Without going into spoilers it is also likely that the relationship between Narvel and Maya will not sit easy with many viewers. If you are able to, in any sense, root for Narvel it will be down to Schrader’s ability write characters who are themselves seeking compassion without ever holding that this is wholly deserved. As with his previous works, Schrader’s commitment to moral ambiguity makes his work thrillingly divisive and near impossible to not have some form of a reaction to. Elements of “The Master Gardener” may in retrospect feel like playing through Schrader’s greatest hits but it is lovely to see the director at this point in his career embrace a tiny bit more optimism. Even if this isn’t one for Barack Obama, it is proof that not giving a shit if people like you is still working for Paul Schrader.
“Master Gardener” premiered at the 2022 Venice Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.