‘Master Gardener’ review: Paul Schrader’s latest tortured soul fare is rotten to its roots [D] | Venice Review
At Barcelona Football Club’s fearsome home ground Camp Nou, the world’s largest soccer stadium, devotees disappointed by their team’s performance will start whistling and waving white handkerchiefs. It is a sign of profound discontent that tends to prompt reconsideration on the issue of the day by the club’s directors.
I thought about this ritual when watching Master Gardener, the third and final entry to Paul Schrader’s touted “plagued man” trilogy, which is said to have started with 2016’s First Reformed but could be traced back to Taxi Driver or Blue Collar, his 1978 directorial debut. Regardless, this is not new territory. Joel Edgerton stars as Narvel Roth (yes), a former neo-Nazi hitman now running lush gardens Gracewood, owned by erratic Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), under the witness protection program. There he meets Haverhill’s early-twenties grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), an intern who soon takes what is a frankly implausible interest in the head gardener. But Schrader’s story must move, and does.
For Narvel, stoic is, unsurprisingly, the name of the game: Edgerton is a good deal better at this than Oscar Isaac, who inconspicuously forced his voice lower and pushed his shoulders back when portraying a similar tortured protagonist in The Card Counter last year. Edgerton is a very good actor, and seems to have learned the right lessons from Isaac’s fumbling.
But he can only deliver the lines he is given. Schrader’s dialogue is shoddy, sometimes ridiculous. Characters laugh at each other’s lamest jokes — a handy tell for a script that has had too few eyeballs on it — and never, ever talk like people do. At one point a character says “I wanna take off my clothes so bad”, a pre-emptor for sex that surely rivals the already-iconic “Suck me” in Claire Denis’s The Stars at Noon earlier this year. None of Master Gardener’s dramatic lines pack any punch. It is, like most of Schrader’s weaker films, maddeningly humourless.
Master Gardener being poorly made is one thing, but its entire conceit deserves critique. Schrader yesterday raised eyebrows (including, reportedly, Edgerton’s) when he said the notion of a neo-Nazi and a black woman forming a sexual relationship was a “fantasy worth ruminating on”. His film is, indeed, a fantasy. As a rumination, though, it is strikingly unintelligent, never mind implausible. When late at night Maya spots Narvel’s array of Nazi tattoos — they include swastikas, multiple SS emblems, Hitler quotes, and the words “WHITE POWER” — she goes back to sleep. Maya then travels with Narvel the next morning to a botanical garden, where she casually brings up the body art. You do not need a history lesson to know the scale or severity of the Nazis’ crimes, nor Hitler’s racial policies. For Maya to stay in bed with this man (and, not to give too much away, to develop their relationship further after he offers no explanation for them) is a narrative oversight that leaves Master Gardener limbless. It is hard to recover from. I, and others in the audience, did not. Handkerchiefs should have been raised.
It’s not clear to me why Schrader, who is plausibly the finest screenwriter in the history of cinema, continues to make visually bland, morally dull stories that would be more appropriately told by someone else or which, in this case, needn’t be told at all. Presumably he enjoys the moviemaking process, and has settled on a formula that works. Yet thanks to its egregious racial ignorance and frustrating sloppiness in its formation, Master Gardener is the worst example of that stale equation yet. Do yourself a favour and stay inside.
This review is from the 2022 Venice Film Festival. Master Gardener is currently without U.S. distribution.