Review by Sean Boelman
Paul Schrader is one of the more acclaimed screenwriters and directors working today, but he does have a few stinkers in his filmography. Still, his recent hot streak had some people confused by the mixed reception to his newest outing, Master Gardener. It’s understandable why the film has been so divisive — as Schrader has attempted to make a challenging work, and the results don’t always achieve what he sets out to do.
The film follows a horticulturist with a mysterious and dark past whose life tending to the plants is thrown askew when his boss, the owner of the grounds, forces him to take on her distant relative as an apprentice. Part moody, contemplative drama and part gritty thriller, Schrader’s newest film can’t decide exactly what it wants to be, and therein lies many of its issues.
One of the big problems with the script is that it doesn’t have much of a thematic focus, instead feeling somewhat aimless. Schrader takes some huge swings — especially when it comes to the neo-Nazi redemption arc — and they almost never pay off. The film is also full of Schrader-isms: lines of dialogue that are depressed and vaguely philosophical, but don’t make a ton of sense.
The fundamental problem of this film is that it is meant to be a story about forgiveness, and yet it doesn’t give the character much reason to be forgiven. We see a couple of flashbacks to the protagonist’s racist past that imply he has done some bad stuff, but the film seems to be showing him as reluctant in the first place. And what he does to redeem himself isn’t much better — as his redemption for a life of racism is just falling in love with a woman of color. It’s a bit of an odd message to be sending, especially since Schrader fails to connect point A to point B.
Like The Card Counter and First Reformed before it, the biggest strength of Master Gardener — the conclusion of Schrader’s so-called “Man in a Room” thematic trilogy — is its lead performance. Joel Edgerton is much better than the role that has been written for him, as his performance makes the character feel quiet and contemplative, rather than aloof and distant.
The supporting performances are also somewhat interesting, because they clash directly with Edgerton’s. While Edgerton stands out by radiating humanity that the character shouldn’t have had, Sigourney Weaver and Quintessa Swindell are much colder than their characters should have been. Still, Weaver in particular is a ton of fun to watch with an almost sinister turn.
Ultimately, it seems that Schrader has grown more as a director over the course of these three films than as a writer. For the most part, the film is absolutely gorgeous — but it would be a travesty if it wasn’t given that so much of the film is set in and around botanical gardens. There is one CGI sequence in the film that will likely earn it some heat, but it’s little worse than the levitation scene in First Reformed.
Master Gardener is undoubtedly the most Paul Schrader-y of Paul Schrader’s recent output of films, for better or worse. The script is undeniably rough, yet there is something so alluring about the film — mostly thanks to strong performances and direction — that it manages to work despite its flaws.
Master Gardener hits theaters on May 19.