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Master Gardener review – Schrader’s horticulturist thriller is stylish but culturally crude

Joel Edgerton stars in the writer-director's third "man in a room" movie in a row, a character study that both confounds and absorbs

When you’re watching a Paul Schrader film, two contravening thoughts flit through your mind. One: who is letting him get away with this? Two: I really hope he never stops. Master Gardener may be yet another example of Schrader throwing a dart at a jobs board to fill in “I’m just a [blank] who used to be somebody else” – poker player, gigolo, drug dealer, gardener, etc. – but even if he is once again self-plagiarizing with an austere male protagonist and Bressonian camerawork, there’s just something about this formula that is so inherently watchable. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I guess.

In one of his many Boomer-ish and famously prolific Facebook posts, the director recently wrote: “I've attached a frontpiece quote to my last script, Master Gardener, from Leonard Cohen: “And I choose the rooms that I live in with care, The windows are small and the walls almost bare, There's only one bed and there's only one prayer, I listen all night for your step on the stair.” Twixt the two is the arc of hope that living can bring.” It’s this idea of hope, asceticism and forgiveness that percolates throughout his flawed but engaging new work, a crime thriller that won’t surprise or recruit new fans but will surely please those who have been all-in on his recent resurgence.

The “God’s Lonely Man” character here takes the form of Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a horticulturalist at a grand estate called Gracewood Gardens who keeps both his work and emotions hedged in neat rows. He is – shock! – hiding a dark past, and his world of rigor and routine begins to crack when his employer and part-time lover Ms. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) asks him to take on an apprentice in the form of her young grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), whom is mixed-race (a detail that becomes important as the plot develops). From the opening credits alone – a series of slowly opening, unmistakably vaginal flowers – to the first few scenes’ graceful, still camera movements and elegant crossfades, we know not to expect a hard switch away from Schrader’s trademark visual style.

Disappointingly, though, here Schrader’s screenplay feels a little flabby; lame dialogue like “I thought you had a green thumb, I never knew it was a green middle finger!” is, excruciatingly, pretty common, sticking out among all the sophisticated camerawork like weeds that need pruning. In particular, Weaver is giving a frankly deranged performance in a nonsensical role as the wealthy dowager Ms. Haverhill, a sort of campy Grand High Bitch who names her pet pooch “Porch Dog” and appears to belong to an entirely different movie to everyone else. Swindell is a fresh and luminous presence, but their character is crassly underwritten and often thankless; the racial aspect of Maya’s storyline only gets a skin-deep analysis, and there will likely be, as the kids say, “discourse” about a certain thematic element that gives Roth a backstory but is far from being adroitly deployed.

Like The Card Counter, Schrader’s latest is preoccupied with the liminal spaces that typify the crummy loneliness of the American condition: highways, motels, car parks, dimly lit bedrooms. Again, Schrader often relies on glaring cultural clues to colour the zeitgeist of his works; just as a gambler in The Card Counter wore a MAGA hat, here a supporting character – a cop, no less – wears a “We Should All Be Feminists” T-shirt: it’s almost comical how unsubtle it all feels. What’s more, it’s hard not to suppress a giggle when we get yet another monastic, repressed Schraderbro lead opening his diary and meticulously writing notes about the details of his profession at an aloof remove, saying things like “gardening is a belief in the future” with humourless sincerity.

Yet the film is engrossing in that specific “what is happening?” kind of way, with a big-hearted, whimsical scene involving CGI flowers leaving you a little breathless and giddy and a beautiful Devonté Hynes original score to boot. Still, considering the sensitivity required for the culturally explosive themes at play, there’s just a lack of fire, urgency and chemistry between Roth, Weaver and Swindell to land this film in the back of the net. It ultimately all ends too neatly – a normie, optimistic ending that leaves a bit of a bad taste considering how dark Schrader has been willing to go before. But if this really is, as the director stated earlier this week, his “last rodeo,” perhaps we should give him a little leeway to end on a positive, albeit improbable, note. Master Gardener may be the weakest of his recent loose trilogy, but Schrader’s power remains evergreen.

Master Gardener was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. It is released in UK cinemas on 26 May.

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