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  • Writer's pictureJames McCleary

Master Gardener // Film Review

Paul Schrader really ought to stop telling us his films are based on himself.

This has become more of a problem with time, as his fixation on diary-keeping sociopaths wrestling with an increasingly violent contempt for wider society has continued to up the ante on itself. Taxi Driver is still unmatched as his best work with each successive film only endeavouring to find more perverse twists on that same formula. At a certain point, the meaning behind the words becomes less attached to any one character, and more to the author himself.

Master Gardener, then, is the story of Narvel Roth, an ex-white supremacist turned into a garden attendant through the witness protection program. The title is a play on the ‘Master Race’ belief attached to Neo Nazism, which should give you some indication of how seriously Schrader intends to take this material.

Played by Joel Edgerton, Roth is a laconic and tortured soul, though it is never entirely clear whether his trauma comes from the sins of the past or the daughter he has been estranged from as a result. He never shies away from violence, as his tough exterior only cracks learning his family want nothing to do with him. The film frames this as their sin, not his.

Roth spends much of the film waxing poetically about garden plants, demonstrating a strong base of research from Schrader as scribe, though ultimately to little purpose. Whereas in recent years Schrader has excelled at mining the tension from priests and card counters, the punishment here feels too gentle for the crime. Roth equates the blooming buds of Spring to his redemption from the Neo Nazi cause, but the comparison feels weak and overly generous. It’s uncomfortable how easily Schrader allows his protagonist to live peacefully in spite of the heinous crimes we are continually reminded off through a horror show of body tattoos.

It is not until the arrival of Maya (Quintessa Swindell), the Black niece of the garden’s owner, who is assigned to train under Roth that Schrader’s true vision for his character's redemption becomes clear. Roth falls for Maya, and she in turn appears to fall for him, though we are never really given any insight into her perspective. The film clearly believes that a white supremacist falling for a Black woman (girl, really, as Maya is no more than half the age of Roth), is a powerful statement, but it never thinks to ask what it would take for Roth to actually earn that forgiveness, never mind her love.

The guts of the film sees Roth attempting to aid Maya in her struggles with drug abuse and a dangerous gang of dealers with a hold over her life. He drives her from place to place, forcing her through drug withdrawals and bathing her as she comes through sober on the other side. In other words, he treats her like one of his plants, and takes thrills from 'growing' her into a better person. Bizarrely, Roth is written as a soft soul, described by his colleagues as a ‘romantic’, and when Maya finally learns the truth about his past, she is so enamoured as to quickly offer forgiveness. The scene in question, wherein the two characters strip side-by-side to study the other in naked, honest form, is the most misjudged in the film, in no small part due to the choice to keep the camera locked on Edgerton’s face, squeezing empathy from the character as he is unburdened from his past. Swindell, on the other hand, might as well not have shown up.

All in all, there are points in The Master Gardener where one could confuse Schrader for latter-day Clint Eastwood. Where is the nuance of Travis Bickle’s failed love affairs, that series of vignettes in which everyone sees him for the unstable creature that he is? Schrader’s insistence on begging forgiveness for a white supremacist suffering only the most minimal and obligatory hardships is a truly inexplicable choice, and it makes for a whimpering product from a director who has long been showing the limitations of his playbook. If we’re looking for a silver lining, Schrader has recently stated that he intends to write his next film from a new perspective, that of a woman.

I’ll believe it when I see it.


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