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19 May 2023

Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener is inexcusably nasty – and yet I loved it

This story of an ex-white supremacist and a mixed-race woman tending to the grounds of a former plantation will make many groan – but it is so distinct, clearly part of a lifetime’s work.

By David Sexton

Gardening has never featured much in the movies. A few years ago there was the spectacularly batty A Little Chaos, in which horticulturalist Kate Winslet brought a feminine touch to the gardens of Versailles, seducing its master gardener Le Nôtre. Lovers of kitsch still treasure the scene in which Louis XIV, played by the film’s director Alan Rickman, in the saturnine mode of his villain in Die Hard, tells her: “Nothing would suit me better than for me to take some advice on perennials.”

Master Gardener is the most recent work by the veteran director Paul Schrader, 76, the latest in a distinct genre he has been developing for over 50 years. He published his gnarly book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer in 1972, setting out his belief in the austere approach exemplified by Bresson’s 1959 masterwork Pickpocket, in which the tormented hero invites punishment until the last moment, when transformation is offered in a kiss through prison bars. In 1976 Martin Scorsese directed Schrader’s analogous script for Taxi Driver. His first film as director, Blue Collar, followed two years later.

Master Gardener completes a loose trilogy of late works from Schrader – “man in a room” films with remarkably similar templates. They focus on a person, introduced to us through the journal he writes, as he pursues an occupation while trying to live with crushing guilt over his past actions, only at the last finding redemption through a gesture of love.

In the terrific First Reformed (2017), Ethan Hawke plays an alcoholic pastor, tortured by guilt over his son’s death and appalled by climate change, who plans to take his life in his own church. In The Card Counter (2021), Oscar Isaac plays a professional gambler formed by the eight years he served in prison for the evil he committed at Abu Ghraib.

Master Gardener follows much the same format. Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton, so severe, his features so hard-edged, his eyes such an icy blue – reason enough to watch) is a mannerly, neatly turned out man who oversees Gracewood Gardens, a former plantation property in Louisiana, belonging to a rich and imperious dowager, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). She treats him as autocratically as she treats her “Porch Dog”, even when ordering him to her bed.

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[See also: Rye Lane review: a bright, euphoric south London romcom]

Narvel, we realise, has ended up here because he is in a witness protection programme. He has a truly dreadful past, having been a hitman for a white supremacist gang, his muscular torso still covered with racist tattoos. He has lost his family, including all contact with his daughter, as a result, but has found order in his life through his new calling. Then Norma asks him to take on as an apprentice her great-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a troubled mixed-race girl in her early 20s. She is surprisingly responsive to working in the garden but remains a drug addict, at the mercy of her abusive dealer. The pair begin to develop a relationship, to the fury of Norma.

Master Gardener has the gravity and beauty of Schrader’s best films in its expository first half, even if it is not really interested in gardening (he’s always been interested in “the metaphor of an occupation”, he says, rather than in actual poker, cab drivers or gardening). But the film becomes wilfully provocative as it develops, Schrader having always had, alongside the vaunted spirituality, an urge to push buttons.

Many viewers, not only women, will groan to learn that redemption comes once again through an older man’s relationship with a beautiful girl young enough to be his daughter. As the infuriated Norma tells Narvel, just in case we missed it, he is playing Humbert Humbert in his own production of Lolita. (Weaver is 73, Edgerton 48, Swindell 26). But that’s only half of it. Maya is repulsed when she sees Narvel’s racist tattoos and realises his past. Yet somehow she gets over it almost at once, coming to his room and saying: “I really want to take my clothes off – is that OK? I want to take off my clothes so bad.” To which Narvel replies: “I would like nothing more.” (This may even be a sly reprise of the Rickman/Winslet scene.) We see the former white supremacist going down on her, kneeling.

Sothis film is not just “a nasty gumbo”, as Schrader says proudly, and preposterous – but also pretty much inexcusable. And yet I have to say that I loved it for being so distinct in its texture, so clearly part of a lifetime’s work. And it’s not only because Maya asks Narvel, as they drive back from her first Narcotics Anonymous meeting, if he’s ever been to Great Dixter.

“Master Gardener” is in cinemas now

[See also: The Night of the 12th Review: a grim look at an unsolved murder]

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This article appears in the 24 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Crack-Up