Dir.: Paul Schrader; Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Joel Edgerton, Quintessa Swindell; USA 2022, 107 min.
Paul Schrader follows First Reformed with another lean film noir about redemption. Starring Sigourney Weaver and Joel Edgerton The Master Gardener is as perfect a B-Movie as you can get, this one in the Southern Gothic tradition spiced up with a contemporary twist. Full of surprises and much soul-searching it centres on a rather eclectic menage-a-trois. Schrader is still the last men standing in a Hollywood renaissance that never really happened.
Rich, arrogant and spoilt, dowager Norma Haverhill (Weaver at her most acerbic) is on the wrong side of middle age, and rules her garden empire like a plantation owner before the Civil War. She is the Law, or better still, she makes and breaks it. Her “Boy Friday”, or more of a man servant, is Marvel Roth (Edgerton) the titular horticulturalist.
Schrader gives a running VoiceOver that tools through all the fine gardens in history. Norma is not very keen on under-achievers, she even refers to her dog as “just a veranda dog”; not fit for blood sport. And we can well imagine Norma in her younger days, riding mercilessly to hounds. Roth panders to her obediently during the preparations for the forthcoming garden show (which may be the last, as Norma is not what she was), but when Norma invites him to bed, a ritual that clearly dates back along way, we are quietly taken aback to witness his florid tattoos particularly the swastikas.
Into this idyll of tranquility and natural beauty Norma then places a time-bomb, very well aware of its explosive powers: Maya, her nineteen-year old grand-niece will help Roth and his staff to create the perfect garden. Norma did not care much for Maya’s mother – or any other relatives, for that matter – but prides herself in doing a good deed just this once. Roth, who is no spring chicken himself, immediately falls for Maya who is also has a drug problem. Her boyfriend/pimp/dealer regularly beats her up, and faces the wrath of Roth. But there a consequences, and Roth must retaliate, revealing a tawdry past – all redeemed courtesy of Miss Norma. But now he must make a choice.
DoP Alexander Dynan, who worked with Schrader on First Reformed, conjures up a rather staid and sterile picture of the gardens, historic and contemporary, and may be this is intentional. The only time they really enchant is in a surreal sequence towards the end, But his images of a broken America caught between white supremists and the immigrant underbelly feel authentic. The dying gang lords are being replaced by small time drug dealers and their scene. Schrader again quails away from judgement or sentimentality: his style is laconic and the assault is always full frontal. Master Gardener is like one of the best pulp-novels: the great Jim Thompson would have been proud. AS
ON RELEASE FROM May 2023