Sunday 11 June 2023

I can see the grass grow: "Master Gardener"

Paul Schrader has made his film again. (Look, we have a new Wes Anderson releasing in a few weeks; best I get such phrases out of my system now.) Master Gardener actually opens with what has become Schrader's signature image: a man in priestly garb with Christian-soldier hair (buzzcut back and sides, tamped down on top; a denial of something, worn as a crown) sitting at a desk and writing in a notebook. This image, which Schrader lifted wholesale from his beloved Bresson, reminds us of the following: one, where Schrader is coming from, as a critic and screenwriter turned imagemaker; two, that Schrader has almost certainly done more for old-school stationery (and actors' handwriting) than any other filmmaker this century; and three, why we critics, sat at similar desks with similar notebooks, respond to Schrader's work so. There are greener fingers gripping the pen this time, though, in a film that pivots on the idea of cultivation. Master Gardener (is that title an Ibsen allusion?) revolves around Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), an ex-con who now spends his days tending the ornamental gardens at a fancy-pants estate on the outskirts of an unnamed East Coast city. His employer is the formidable dowager Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, in a role she was literally born to play: scion of old money); and he has a promising new apprentice in Mrs. Haverhill's grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, so outstanding on TV's recent reboot of In Treatment). In the work of a more naturally optimistic filmmaker, the latter relationship would be cause for cheer. Blossoming in the estate's hothouse, Maya is visibly intended as the colour otherwise lacking from the small, lonely furrow Narvel has been ploughing: it's not just that she is of colour, but that she shows up in a tie-dyed "NO BAD VIBES" tee, with cornflower-blue eyeshadow that frankly gilds the lily. But Narvel has a past, revealed when he removes his shirt after hours to show the camera the white power tattoos lingering across his torso. "Given the right conditions," Narvel notes in his horticultural diary, "seeds can last indefinitely". Schrader here invites us to play the role of Alan Titchmarsh (or any other gardener): to consider what's already been planted, and what may be about to take root anew.

Within a reel or so, Master Gardener has reintroduced us to one of the perverse pleasures of a Paul Schrader film - and one that's only become more potent in an era of bland, wipe-clean movie superheroes: watching characters with traces of dirt under their fingernails, who present to us as somewhat besmirched or sullied, if not outright grubby. Narvel has turned to the soil as what he calls "an investment in the future", trying to coax the floral beauty that might grow over - and perhaps atone for - the ugliness of his past. "Am I in the clear?," he asks his parole officer after the flashback that describes what Narvel Roth did to end up as an ex-con. "That's never going to happen," comes the no-nonsense response, and by speaking these five words, the eternally underappreciated actor Esai Morales gets to put the Schraderian hero's condition in a nutshell. Damned though he appears, though, Narvel isn't alone. Mrs. Haverhill (who refers to her employee as "sweet pea"; any onlookers from the HR department will already be having conniptions) invites the gardener in for dinner and then up the stairs to bed, as if she were Constance Chatterley. And some tangled family roots make for an altogether unhappy reunion after she (con)descends to meet Maya after a long estrangement. "I'm not inadequate," insists the latter. "Of course not," Haverhill snaps. "You're impertinent." Does the older woman resent the proximity of a younger, riper bloom? At any rate, there's tension in this garden even before a squadron of aphids - and Maya's no-good druggy associates - come calling. One of the film's strengths is how it views gardening as both a source of fascination in itself - more so, I'd say, than the gambling in 2021's The Card Counter - and as a fruitful metaphor for human endeavour. Everyone here is trying to renew, to secure themselves a fresh start or room to grow; everyone is plagued by some form of mouldering resentment. There are things that bug and eat away at them.

Which is not to say that Master Gardener is a first-prize winner. This viewer found the film steadier and stronger than The Card Counter, but still nothing like as forceful as 2017's First Reformed, the movie that relaunched Schrader as a bankable indie presence. It has interesting characters, played by actors coached into giving something like their all: Edgerton lovingly tends the border where control and self-discipline mesh with something more selfless and nurturing, and the solitary smile Schrader affords him around the midpoint is a real gift to the audience. But try as everyone might, no-one can quite get the central relationship to bed in - more site-specifically yet, its redemptive sweetness carries with it the honk of dramatic manure. Swindell brings all her staggering maturity to the task, but Schrader's too distanced from the character to bring her into clear focus: as it is, Maya seems too wise to have slipped into drugs, and too resourceful to require the help that she gets. (Swindell is an excellent actress now, but she's going to rule the world once she leaves behind the troubled juvenile roles people keep casting her in.) The other issue is one of structure: I wonder whether Schrader has it in his head that his films have to take a turn, because that's why people come to a Paul Schrader movie, much as people go to an Almodóvar film for the decor and Penelope Cruz. There may be some truth in this, but here such self-conscious auteurism undercuts the (generally gentler) storytelling: we get a minor turn, in the cosmic scheme of things, where First Reformed's was wrenching. When Narvel confesses "I make these rules for myself", you wonder how much he's speaking to his creator's own rigorous inflexibility and resistance to positive change. Still, stick with it, and the coda fumbles its way towards grounds for optimism - the idyll of an old man left to watch the grass grow at a point others have been put out to pasture or laid six feet under. Both odd and serious enough to be worthwhile, Master Gardener at the very least gives rise to an intriguing pub-quiz question: what connects the writer of Taxi Driver to the protagonist of Voltaire's Candide? Dig in.

Master Gardener is now showing in selected cinemas.

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