Some flowers fight for supremacy over the others in even
the most well tended garden
dir: Paul Schrader
Get this: a recent film about an isolated weirdo who writes in a diary, leads a quiet, austere life and who eventually does something violent.
Have you figured out which movie I’m talking about? Obviously it would make a lot of sense if I were talking about Master Gardener, it being Paul Schrader’s most recent movie.
But let’s be honest, it’s the same plot of every movie Paul Schrader has ever been involved with dating back to Taxi Driver.
More recently he’s made a trilogy of films about men sitting in rooms writing in journals. It seems like he’s really dead-set against men journaling. Like it’s really bad or something. Those three flicks are First Reformed which starred Ethan Hawke, The Card Player which starred Oscar Isaac, and this here film, which stars Australia’s Own Joel Edgerton as a guy who keeps a diary. They are three films about three guys who would rather murder a bunch of people, or harm themselves than ever get therapy or mental health support from anyone. They cannot deal with guilt, or frustration, and so they set themselves apart from the world before they lash out at it, sometimes catastrophically.
Here Edgerton plays a guy called Narvel Roth. Narvel dresses very prim and properly. Always looks very sharp. Always keeps his arms and neck covered. Hmm. Wonder what that’s about.
He is the master gardener of the title, running a very tight ship at some southern estate that you just know used to be a plantation and definitely had slaves at some point.
The owner of the manor is an imperious sort, and Narvel is very deferential to her and her expectations. She is a lethally dangerous sort of dowager duchess called Norma, played ably by Sigourney Weaver.
Over tea she instructs Narvel that he will be taking on an apprentice, a young relative of hers who she disapproves of for existing and for having “mixed blood”.
Whatever the fuck that means. Other than instructing her in the ways of the garden, Narvel also gives her lessons in botany and why everything in the garden has a two part Latin name. It must be so fascinating for Maya (Quintessa Swindell)
At all times Narvel is courteous, restrained, and confidently self-assured. Whether it’s the garden demanding his tender ministrations or it’s Norma demanding sexual favours or the diary demanding to be written in, we get the feeling that Narvel is happy to continue on in this fashion for eternity.
Before they make it explicit with Norma, I actually thought “wow, how good are Joel and Sigourney at somehow generating sexual tension / chemistry, even though they’re not playing lovers” and then, one of many shocks, they end up where they end up, and we’re like “Oh. Okay.”
This is not the big shock in the flick. There’s something I’m dancing around, and, though I’m not at all a graceful dancer, I do enjoy seeing how long I can go before mentioning it; Narvel is not just a troubled man with a past.
Unlike most of Schrader’s protagonists, Narvel is not a tortured or troubled man agonising over his past. He is (somehow) at peace with all the horrible things he did and the horrible person he was. In the present, he is squared away, content, master of himself and the garden. At least that’s how he manifests outwardly. He still has nightmares. But at least he’s not trying to actively murder people just to cope with his various traumas. He’s okay, we’re okay, everything’s okay.
But there’s no drama if something doesn’t shake things up. One of those things is organic, as in it feels believable given what we’ve seen thus far, and involves Norma going ballistic. The other element feels manufactured, and involves someone from Maya’s present, being some drug-dealing scumbag beating her up for… reasons.
The last part of the movie doesn’t work, but then the endings of most Paul Schrader movies are either farcical or meaninglessly violent. And even having written that I can commend Schrader for not going the obvious way with this flick. Narvel and Maya flee from the garden, Narvel oversees Maya go through withdrawals and get clean (when I, up to that moment, had no idea she was an addict), Narvel just makes everything better, but then she sees his tattoos. Talk about getting over something quicker than quick.
There’s some pointless stuff with some law enforcement types (even though Esai Morales is never pointless, and always gives 1000%, and I laughed when I saw his “We Should All Be Feminists” t-shirt), but it’s still coming done to Narvel deciding whether there’s a way forward without murdering some people, or whether he’s just going to have to murder people all over again as the solution to everything.
And then it ends, and I’m not even sure that anyone could possibly believe that ending, but that’s the ending they went for. Narvel says something, and then that’s going to be it. No-one has any reason to go along with it (including and especially the wealthy and vindictive dowager duchess), but we are told that’s how it’s going to go, and then everybody lived happily ever after(?)
Despite what a terrible person Narvel must have been, when you look at those tattoos, and when you know what those references are, it’s not hard to see that it’s a really strong performance, and an enjoyable one in spite of that. I’m not even sure as to why we would cut him some slack, or any slack at all. Maybe it’s just lingering affection for a great actor, or a really strong, compelling performance. I think out of the so-called movie trilogy of men sitting in rooms writing in diaries, this is probably the strongest of the three, which means, against all odds, that Joel Edgerton did better than Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac playing a disturbed loner!
Whack that on your resume, Joel!
But I can’t pretend that the ending isn’t farcical, or that Schrader puts as much effort or characterisation in female characters as he does in the men, or that Maya makes that strong of an impression. She’s mostly just a passenger, an excuse to make things happen, more than a fully realised performance or character.
Still, it’s a pretty strong movie.
7 once you’ve mastered gardening, you can move on to the far more difficult discipline of mastering race out of 10
“I thought you should know, I was once someone else. I was raised to hate people that were different than me, and I did, and I was good at it.” – at least you were good at something - Master Gardener