If Travis Bickle – the antihero Paul Schrader created for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver – had an affair with a horticulturist, their love child might resemble Narvel Roth, the subject of Schrader’s latest film, Master Gardener. Travis and Narvel document their obsessive thoughts in journals, both are products of their violent pasts, and neither have qualms about taking the law into their own hands. Schrader, however, is nearly a half-century older today, and although there’s no mistaking Master Gardener for anything other than a Paul Schrader film, the intervening years seem to have softened his nihilistic perspective.
Narvel is a master gardener. As portrayed by Joel Edgerton, he’s reserved, fastidious, even-tempered, and always professional. Along with several of his apprentices, Narvel maintains the lush grounds of an estate owned by a wealthy widow, Norma Haverhill, played by Sigourney Weaver. Norma maintains a businesslike disposition and an air of entitlement at all times, even in the boudoir where she expects sexual servitude from her “Sweet Pea,” the patronizing pet name she’s given Narvel. After Norma’s grandniece Maya becomes orphaned, she instructs Narvel to employ the twenty-something-year-old woman and teach her how to garden. That’s when things get thornier than a rose bush. Maya is impressed with Narvel’s knowledge and passion for gardening, and in spite of the two decades age difference, she develops an infatuation. Narvel, in turn, is attracted to her vulnerability and youthful beauty. However, Maya is biracial, Norma is possessive and obviously bigoted, and Narvel is a repentant white supremacist who keeps tattooed remnants of his hateful past hidden beneath his long-sleeved shirts. The question becomes not who gets hurt, but how much, and when? Adding to the drama, Maya is harboring a secret of her own.
Joel Edgerton is terrific as Narvel, imbuing him with a quiet confidence that comes from knowing precisely how dangerous he can be when the situation calls for it. Of course, being that this is a Paul Schrader film, a situation eventually does call for it. Not only is suspense built upon the threat of violence, as we’ve come to expect from Schrader’s stories, it’s built upon emotional stakes; Narvel and Maya are deserving of happiness in their lives, and we’re hoping they get it.
Schrader is as socially conscious as ever, sneaking in progressive messaging that doesn’t fit neatly into Master Gardener’s narrative. He hints at the plight of the poor with a passing mention of a Meals on Wheels charity event, and signals his support for gender equality by outfitting a sidebar character in a T-shirt proclaiming, “We Should All Be Feminists.” Curiously, his characters frequently speak metaphorically. In voiceover, Narvel is constantly waxing philosophically about life’s parallels with gardening, such as, “The seeds of love grow like the seeds of hate.” When Norma explains that she named her pet canine “Porch Dog” because she knew that that’s all he’d ever be, it’s unmistakably a commentary on how she views Narvel. There’s even a villain from Narvel’s racist past who delivers the innuendo, “We’re gardeners. We pull out the weeds,” when he’s clearly talking about murdering black folk. It might lack subtlety, but it’s a bold choice; by turning subtext into text, Schrader himself becomes the subtext, and we become acutely aware that below the surface of Master Gardener is a master puppeteer pulling the strings.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski
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