While Paul Schrader wrote many great movies about abandoned men looking for a purpose, he has edged into self-parody. His latest pseudo-trilogy pushes audiences to develop empathy for troubled men. However, even a war criminal and an eco-terrorist priest have nothing on the Joel Edgerton-led Master Gardener. Schrader’s latest film lays on heavy commentary about “cancel culture” and moving forward. At times, Master Gardener approaches some of Schrader’s most exciting work. Yet, some aspects struggle to connect or feature surprisingly underwritten characters.
Narvel Roth (Edgerton) works as a horticulturist on a large estate. With his help, Gracewood Gardens has risen to acclaim. One day Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), his boss and the owner of the property, pushes a new apprentice on him. Her grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) will come to work on-site to build a future career. While Narvel hides a dark past as a white supremacist, he grows closer to Maya.
The controversial writer/director dives straight into his perspective on the changing world. He attempts to paint Narvel as a saint and caregiver in his modern incantation. Yet he hides swastika tattoos and SS symbols. Schrader explores the darker side of his character’s background. We see the violence and hate he inflicted before seeking a way out of his old life. Schraeder paints Narvel as a misguided man whose original ideas do not represent his true self.
There is depth in both Edgerton’s performance and Schrader’s screenplay. The question of changing and finding redemption is certainly worthy of exploration. While Schrader pushes the extremist version of this character, Master Gardener makes a strong argument that nature and nurture should be kept in mind for every bad person. Even those of us dropped into bad circumstances can change our life with enough thought.
Schrader develops the relationship between Narvel and Norma well. Weaver brings out a unique vision of her character, showcasing her power. However, when it comes to Narvel and Maya, they are catastrophic. Edgerton is nearly twice the age of Swindell, and it reads on screen. Edgerton imbues Narvel with the awkward nature of a loner and man in hiding out of the subtext. Yet it makes it even more absurd that Swindell’s Maya would begin to fall for him. Swindell does what they can with the role, but the character’s internal logic does not track. Schrader pushes the character to fall for our protagonist, but that would indicate a level of self-hate that would be unimaginable.
Schrader’s clumsy handling of this plotline makes Master Gardner a far more intricate tightrope. While there’s plenty to dig into his latest, Schraeder cannot get out of his own way. Rather than approach a few key issues and dig deeper into them, Schrader pushes his luck. His protagonist requires enough development on his own, but by adding on complex power dynamics, it’s impossible to see any growth. It’s very possible that is the point of Schrader’s film, but Master Gardener becomes too tangled in its preachy nature to live up to the standard of his recent films.