The Movie Waffler New to VOD - MASTER GARDENER | The Movie Waffler


A gardener with a dark past falls for a troubled young apprentice.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Paul Schrader

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Quintessa Swindell, Sigourney Weaver, Esai Morales

Master Gardener poster

The late Larry Cohen began his screenwriting career by submitting scripts for popular American TV shows of the 1960s (TV's real Golden Age, if you ask me). Some were accepted but most were rejected. Later, when he established himself as a feature film writer and director, Cohen would rework some of his rejected TV scripts into original movies. If I wasn't familiar with Paul Schrader's origins I might suspect that his latest movie, Master Gardener, began life as a rejected script for that outstanding '60s show The Fugitive. The resemblances between the structure of Schrader's film and the average episode of that show are uncanny. In fact, Master Gardener is a far more faithful big screen adaptation of The Fugitive than the one we actually got back in 1993, and its leading man, Joel Edgerton, is a far better Richard Kimble than Harrison Ford.

In The Fugitive, Kimble was a doctor who found himself on the run from the law after being wrongly accused of his wife's murder. His long term goal was to prove his innocence by finding the one-armed man he saw fleeing the crime scene, but this quest only really popped up two or three times a season. The average episode of The Fugitive saw Kimble adopting an alias and taking a menial job while keeping his head down. He'd often find himself compromised, usually by a woman who falls in love with him.

Master Gardener review

That's the basic setup Schrader has adopted for his latest. The Kimble surrogate here is Edgerton's protagonist, a former Neo-Nazi hitman who now lives under the name of Narvel Roth and works as the head gardener at Gracewood, a Louisiana plantation now open to the public. Like Kimble, he keeps his head down and just wants to get on with life and his job, which seems to have brought him contentment. His torso and back are covered with white supremacist tattoos, which he claims he once considered having removed but changed his mind. We're never given a reason why Narvel keeps his tattoos, but it's easy to suspect it's his way of ensuring he never allows himself to get close to anyone.

His boss, the lady of the house, Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), is well aware of Narvel's tattoos and his past, having agreed to give him a chance at rebuilding his life when he was given a new identity by the FBI, with whom he colluded to put away some heavy hitters in the Nazi movement. Once a week, Narvel dons a suit and visits the big house for dinner with his employer, before they retire to her bed. These scenes recall one of Schrader's best films, American Gigolo, with Narvel clearly going through a routine, but doing so in a manner that's well rehearsed enough to be convincing. Far from repulsed by his tattoos, Haverhill seems to find them appealing, as though she's inhabited by the racist spirit of her plantation-owning ancestors.

Master Gardener review

Narvel's routine is disrupted when Haverhill assigns him the task of taking on her troubled biracial great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as an apprentice and student. Both her parents having died, Maya has turned to drugs and is in need of positive distraction. Surprisingly, she takes to gardening and is an eager student. She also falls head over heels for Narvel, who comes close to accepting her offers of physical affection, only to remember he's covered in the sort of tattoos that aren't going to do him any favours with a young black woman. Unable to consummate his feelings for Maya physically, Narvel decides to help her by threatening the drug dealers who have their claws in her, and who regularly subject her to beatings. This sees Narvel drawn back to the violent life he had sworn to leave.

Schrader is often mocked by his detractors for his obsession with a certain type of male protagonist, "God's lonely man." Like so many of his protagonists, Narvel keeps his thoughts in a journal and lives in a sparsely decorated room. And like so many of Schrader's male protagonists, Narvel is a socially awkward square who finds himself paired with a vivacious young woman. But Schrader's repetition of key tropes allows us to chart the subtleties of his career progression, and while they adhere to the same basic principles, the average Schrader protagonist of recent years is a very different man to those he wrote in his younger days. The Schrader protagonists of the past gave in to their anger – witness the violence of Travis Bickle, Jake Van Dorn and Charles Rane – whereas those of his later years have turned towards love rather than hate. These are the films of an old man who has realised the world may not be spinning in the direction he'd like, but there's no point in getting angry. Better to make the most of it while you can, and find beauty and contentment where you can.

Master Gardener review

The interracial and age-gap relationship at the centre of Master Gardener feels like a deliberate provocation on Schrader's part. Coming from a generation that fought hard for such things to be accepted, he's likely bewildered by how younger generations are so obsessed with pouring scorn on such couplings. Watching Master Gardener, I began thinking about how American TV's famous first interracial kiss between Kirk and Uhura on Star Trek was applauded by liberals and derided by conservatives at the time. Today, liberals would likely ally with conservatives in finding it offensive and call it an abuse of "power dynamics." Master Gardener plays like Schrader calling out those sad little people who live on the internet and pour scorn on anyone who gets on with life, who spend their lives peeking through digital curtains and wielding words like "inappropriate" and "problematic," who turn being perpetually offended (usually on behalf of others) into a lifestyle. They're usually white and middle class, the sort of people who could never understand the concept of finding joy where you can because their idea of contentment has always been handed to them on a silver platter. Such people would seem to be represented by Weaver's Mrs Haverhill, who never seems to leave her home and is quick to point out others' flaws while ignoring any criticism pointed in her direction. There's a wonderful interaction between Narvel and his boss when he confesses his relationship with May. "That's obscene," she growls. "No it's not," he replies defensively, "I've seen obscene." If you think two damaged people finding comfort in one another is obscene, this probably isn't the movie for you. If you want to see a master filmmaker making peace with the world as he prepares to leave it, Master Gardener should be top of your watch list.

Master Gardener
 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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