Director – Paul Schrader – 2022 – US – Cert. 15 – 107m
Order and chaos. A man works bringing horticultural order to his employer’s garden estate, but the disorder of his past threatens to catch up with him and wreak havoc upon it
Or. A man engaged in sexual relations with his female employer becomes involved with her grandniece, to whom his employer may one day leave her inheritance
Or. A man orders his employer’s garden estate until she ejects him for sleeping with her grandniece, leaving the pair to survive in the tough world beyond – out in UK cinemas on Friday, May 26th
This appears to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it concerns a man (the central character, the eponymous master gardener) imposing order, but he is a man coming from chaos and at some point that chaos may undo what he has achieved there. On the other, it concerns two women – one his monied, controlling, matriarchal employer, the other her grandniece, from the wrong side of the tracks, who the employer wants to learn the business. The man is initially the lover of the first and, later, becomes the lover of the second, for which the first fires him.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is the master gardener of Gracewood Gardens. Evenings, he writes in his journal. Much of what he writes, which we hear him voice on the soundtrack, is concerned with horticultural detail, and the wider schema of garden types. He and his small team take great pride in tending to Gracewood, a garden of the Formal type, where order is deliberately imposed.
At night, his sleep is punctuated by disturbing memories of a troubled past. The garden is the pride and joy of his employer Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), who inherited it and would like to leave it behind as a legacy for others to appreciate. Narvel, meanwhile, is also his employer’s lover.
There are plans for the garden in terms of the upcoming charity auction, but these are interrupted by Miss Haverhill’s request that Narval take in her grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as an apprentice. Maya has made what Norma euphemistically calls ‘bad choices’ and suggests that this may be the perfect chance for Maya to better her lot. It is he, not her blood-relative, who must put Maya through the ropes when she arrives. Maya doesn’t appear especially interested, yet with time takes to the work like a duck to water.
When, one day, Maya comes in to work injured, Narvel decides to go after the person responsible. Before he has the chance to do so, Norma comes to believe (not entirely without justification) that he and her grandniece are engaging in intimate relations, and throws them both out, forcing them to go on the road and live out of motels.
Like latter-day Adam and Eve wannabees, the pair find themselves outside the garden in an American underbelly of poor housing and drugs dealers, with Narval threatening to play avenging angel to Maya’s abuser, a drugs dealer.
The couple’s dream life (it’s unclear which of them are dreaming, if not both) has them driving through the night along a road beneath a pleasant canopy of trees where bright flowers can be seen springing up on the verges either side. However, this dream soon gives way to chaos erupting into the hitherto untouchable space of Gracewood as the narrative moves towards its terrible conclusion.
Whether this is a film about a troubled man or about a woman and her troubled grandniece, the narrative is built around the former as the main protagonist, told from his point of view with the two women as people with whom he reacts.
We get glimpses of his past in fragments of troubled memory which haunt him at night, and when alone in his small flat on the estate he removes his shirt, we get further glimpses in the form of his tattooed skin. His marriage has long since disintegrated, his daughter has been told he is dead, and his testifying against others from his dubious past means he’s in the Witness Protection Programme, with a handler Deputy Marshall Neruda (Esai Morales) who he calls and meets up with as and when need arises.
When Narvel is working organising the garden, it’s a tranquil world sealed off from the dog-eat-dog world outside, his terrifying nighttime flashes of memory and the tattoos on his skin notwithstanding. When Norma throws him and Maya out – and effectively deeper into each other’s company – the rundown urban environment in which they find themselves couldn’t be more different. There’s little vegetation, it’s a place where people exist or survive rather than relax, recuperate and thrive.
Paul Schrader has taken us here before in his self-originated screenplay for Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and there are times when Joel Edgerton resembles nothing so much as a latter-day version of that film’s protagonist Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), a character likewise obsessed with saving a female much younger than himself from a world which he believes, perhaps mistakenly, threatens to destroy her.
Taxi Driver, though – an early film in the careers of its director, writer and star – is a young man’s film, whereas on Master Gardener, Schrader is clearly much older and boasts a larger canon of work behind him, both as writer and director, which means that new character doesn’t quite stand out in his considerably larger body of work in the way that Travis Bickle / De Niro did back in the day within Schrader’s comparatively small canon.
Yet there remains something deeply unsettling if not Biblical in Schrader’s conjuring of a seemingly safe world to contain his troubled protagonist before exposing his many flaws then ejecting him from it. Some may question the credibility of Narvel’s sexual relations with women two generations apart, the second young enough to be his daughter.
This story is not exactly a fall from grace(wood) though, because Narvel is a deeply flawed, damaged and troubled character before he is taken in to the safe world of the garden and learns to care for it. Although some of these ideas have been playing in Schrader’s head and playing out in his work a long time, he’s clearly still grappling with them and finding ways in which to explore them further. A fascinating addition to his wider body of work.
Additional mention should go to Devonté Hynes’ extraordinary score, which builds up a secure atmosphere of peace and tranquility within the garden itself, introduces notes of unease alongside Narval’s dark flashbacks and ramps up that feeling when he and Maya are eventually thrown out of the garden into the uncertain and dangerous world beyond.
Master Gardener is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, May 26th.
Official First Look trailer: