Master Gardener

Master Gardener


Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

Paul Schrader is the man who wrote Taxi Driver, which became one of Martin Scorcese’s most celebrated films – but, as a director, Schrader’s career has been rather less spectacular. He prefers to concentrate on smaller stories that feature flawed protagonists who harbour dark secrets. Master Gardener, which forms a kind of loose trilogy with his earlier efforts, First Reformed and The Card Counter, seems to follow the same format.

The master gardener of the title is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a skilled horticulturalist who works on the extensive estate (clearly a former plantation) owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he enjoys (if that’s the right word) the occasional sexual encounter, a process which seems to hark back to some kind of mistress/slave tradition. Narvel is nonplussed when Norma asks him to take on a new trainee, her great niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who – Norma tells him – has been through ‘some issues’, and whom she has barely ever met.

Maya is a mixed race woman in her twenties and we soon discover that her foremost issue is that she’s a drug addict. She and Roth hit it off, despite the fact that he has a habit of distilling everything down to ponderous lectures about the nurture of plants – but we have already been tipped off, via the plethora of bizarre tattoos on Narvel’s torso, that he’s had a very different life before he became a gardener, one in which the swastika featured prominently. When Maya is attacked by a drug dealer, Roth takes it upon himself to be her protector – a move that incurs Norma’s anger.

There are several elements here that really don’t convince. For one thing, Maya must be the most wholesome looking drug addict in history, while her ‘beating up’ comes down to a polite cut on her bottom lip. Norma’s vitriolic reaction to Roth’s interest in the girl, on the other hand, seems totally overblown. And when the story heads along the all-too-familar trope of a tough white man becoming the saviour of a younger female, there’s an overpowering sense of ‘seen it all before’. Brief flashbacks to Roth’s earlier life (as a much more hirsute hired killer) kindle even more questions. Where did that encyclopaedic knowledge of horticulture come from in the first place? From the White Supremacists’ Handbook? And why is Maya so ready to forgive him for his previous excesses?

Some earnest twaddle about ‘new shoots’ and ‘the seeds of love growing like the seeds of hate’ fail to explain any of this and, by the time we arrive at the (again faintly unbelievable) conclusion, I’m starting to feel relieved that this is a free Picturehouse screening and that I haven’t actually had to pay for a ticket to see this movie.

Schrader has quite a history in cinema and it would be unfair to dismiss him on the strength of one film, but he can (and has) made much better ones than this.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney