Writer and Director: Paul Schrader
Gardening, a voiceover at the start of Master Gardener explains, represents hope for the future- a belief change will come in due time. Writer/ director Paul Schrader, however, shows little interest in developing away from his well-worn theme of lonely obsessives seeking redemption through acts of violence.
The opening suggests the theme of the movie might be recovering from addiction. Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) has a recovering addict’s dependency upon routine and recitation of positive mantras. He also, in the traditional manner of a Schrader protagonist, keeps a diary which shows although a dedicated gardener he is far from being Alan Titchmarsh. Certain plants, he opines, emit a scent that gives a natural high equivalent to firing a gun.
Roth is employed at the palatial gardens owned by Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) with whom he has a sexual relationship. She asks him to accept as an apprentice her grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) which offers potential for conflict as Maya is of mixed race and Roth is a reformed white supremacist and still has racist tattoos. Besides, Maya, it turns out, also has a dark past.
Addicts, as part of their recovery, often adopt a new obsession as a distraction. A tightly wound Joel Edgerton plays Roth as someone clinging to a ledge by his fingertips- using gardening as a barrier against his old life. Roth has become so abstinent he allows himself the sole vice of a single cigarette per day. He may perceive Mrs. Haverhill as a saviour figure, crediting her with his redemption by giving him a book on gardening.
There is a strong impression of someone whose opinions are rooted in the past in Weaver’s imperious Mrs. Haverhill. When she describes a relationship between Roth and her grand-niece as obscene it is unclear if this is because Maya is of a different age or race from Roth. Haverhill disconcertingly jumps from being emotionally remote to crude asking Roth who is making the decisions -him or his dick. There is the tantalising possibility Haverhill, rather than Roth, is prejudiced against Maya’s race.
The sexual politics of the film show hints of kinky wish-fulfilment. Roth is a submissive sexual partner for both women. A condescending Mrs. Haverhill reminds Roth of his place by referring to him by the endearing but belittling nickname ’sweetpea’. Maya does not so much seduce as dominate Roth, stripping and giving the cold command ‘Continue’.
The slow but satisfying germination of the first half leads to a more formulaic second. The violent act of revenge at the conclusion feels half-hearted rather than cathartic. Maya’s drug habit is contrived – it comes out of nowhere and is apparently resolved by attending a single meeting of Drug Addicts Anonymous. The possible conflict between Maya’s race and Roth’s white supremacist beliefs does not really arise as he has already repented and is ashamed of his background so simply agrees with her criticism and does not try and justify his past.
There are quality performances in Master Gardener, but the story is familiar from other movies.
MasterGardener will be in UK Cinemas from 26th May.