Master Gardener | 2022 Venice Film Festival Review
That Shall He Also Reap: Schrader Sows the Seeds of Fate with Metaphorical Blossoms
The seeds of hate are sown the same as seeds of love represents one of many horticultural metaphors blooming in the unruly soil of Master Gardener, which one might call the cherry atop Paul Schrader‘s thematic ‘man in a room’ trilogy,’ including 2017’s First Reformed and 2021’s The Card Counter. Each concerns a man with a specific skill or interest used as a defense mechanism to avoid or escape a past he’s never quite confronted.
As per usual, significant themes of sexual repression/manipulation and intricate social hierarchies constrict a main protagonist who’s become an empty vessel but needing something, often desperately, to fill himself with. As odd as any of Schrader’s lost souls, Joel Edgerton headlines as the enigmatically named Norval Roth, tending the gardens (including the intimate ones) of a wealthy dowager who controls him more deeply than it seems. He’s matched by Sigourney Weaver as the fussy elitist who runs her estate like an omnipotent dictator disinterested in anything outside of her immediate needs, held together in a tenuous arrangement ripe for implosion, the seeds of a poisonous fruit ready for their next life cycle. Together they horde over a strange dynasty of secrets and stagnation.
Norval (Edgerton) oversees the maintenance of Mrs. Norma Haverhill’s (Weaver) estate, Gracewood Gardens, currently preparing for an upcoming Charity Auction which she wants to be their most impressive event yet as it might be the last she has the energy for. She’s made plans to permanently appoint Norval to be in charge of the gardens after her retirement from dealing with the grounds, but she’s insisted he mentor her troubled grand niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), recently orphaned and in need of a stable environment. Norma doesn’t hold Maya in high esteem and waits several weeks before visiting the young woman while she’s working on the grounds. The meeting is contentious, and Norma’s distaste for the younger woman is solidified when she senses Norval, who she also utilizes for sex, is attracted to Maya. An explosive outburst from Norma finds them both kicked off her estate, and Norval uses it as an opportunity to wean Maya of her drug habit, confronting her dealer/boyfriend with threats of castration. But Norval has a significant secret, having left not only a family but a past behind as a white supremacist.
Edgerton, like Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac, proves to be a fitting conduit for Schrader’s guilt stricken protagonists, forced to hide not only his past, but a torso covered in white supremacy tattoos and Nazi insignia. Scribbling away in his diary, which usually includes a heavy dose of interesting delineations and facts about gardening, he’s shuttered away in a spare cabin adjacent to Haverhill’s property, paying constant spiritual penance, it would seem.
Weekly appointments with Norma, who condescendingly refers to him as Sweet Pea (which is more kindly than her name for her canine, Porch Dog), include lightly coded chit chat before copulation, which might be the creepiest subtext for Norma, implying her actual feelings for the mixed race Maya as she gazes longingly at his naked body racist coat of arms. Weaver is, not surprisingly, captivating as the well-heeled Norma Haverhill and Schrader gives her several juicy scenes, including a drunken luncheon where she rages about her diminishing sexual power over Norval, and then a delicious finale where she holds Norval at gunpoint in response to his future plans. It could have been a moment bordering on camp if it weren’t for her mixture of attraction, desperation, and ultimately, boredom, but it’s the kind of studio era antic from a scorned, vicious woman – like Joan Crawford with Jack Palance in Sudden Fear (1952).
But the film is really uniting the dichotomy of metaphors represented by Norval and Maya, with the word ‘master’ revealing it’s sinister alter ego, as in ‘master race,’ and the white supremacists pulling weeds out of yet another kind of garden. The attraction between the two of them is born out of a mutual recognition and need, and a formidably awkward sex scene segues into a shifting power structure between them, which proves to be a transcendent moment for Norval, realized by Schrader concocting a fantasy nighttime drive hurtling into a blooming Eden. Like Amanda Seyfried and Tiffany Haddish in the previous chapters of the trilogy, Maya is both redemption and salvation for Norval, who steps out of his role as an indentured gigolo to reclaim a semblance of happiness.
A brooding score from Devonte Hynes, which includes a haunting “Space and Time” theme, unfurls in the opening credits alongside a variety of blooming flowers, presenting their erect pistils and stamens amid florid bursts of color—the garden is also an environment rife with sexual titillation, nature herself presenting herself for a necessary interaction required for renewal. Shot by Alexander Dynan, who’s been working with Schrader since 2016’s Dog Eat Dog (a violent sequence inside a grimy party house recalls the grungy aesthetics of their first collaboration), his latest charts a striking differentiation between the groomed facade of the gardens with the squalor of urban decay and the sterile interiors of hotel rooms.
Esai Morales and Rick Cosnett make appearances as men tied to Norval’s past, and Victoria Hill (of First Reformed) is once again a woman whose potential attraction to the leading man is eclipsed by a broken woman in need. Master Gardener is ripe with subtexts, including how we’re all the fruit of the soil we’ve been nourished by, inheriting the sins of the father, etc. And like plants, can be regenerated when decimated or trampled – as long as the ideal combination of elements is available.
Reviewed on September 3rd at the 2022 Venice Film Festival – Out of Competition. 107 Mins.