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‘Master Gardener’ is a lot of raging bull

Joel Edgerton plays a reformed neo-Nazi and horticulturist in writer-director Paul Schrader’s latest

Quintessa Swindell and Joel Edgerton in "Master Gardener," a Magnolia Pictures release.Magnolia Pictures

“Master Gardener” is the third film in writer-director Paul Schrader’s redemption trilogy. The series includes 2017′s “First Reformed,” which is good, and 2021′s “The Card Counter,” which is not. Unfortunately, the trilogy ends with its worst entry, an excruciatingly slow white-savior narrative that aims to provoke yet does nothing but bore.

All three films in this trilogy feature a solitary man seeking redemption or an escape from his unsavory past. This character is a Schrader staple that can be traced back to his screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” (1976). You can also find a version of this man in 1980′s “Raging Bull” and Schrader’s directorial debut, 1978′s “Blue Collar.”


I bring up “Blue Collar,” a masterpiece, because it showed that Schrader could superbly craft a tale about themes of race, racism, and class — all of which show up here. In “Blue Collar,” Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto play auto worker best friends whose relationship is destroyed by professional and personal circumstances. It is a powerful, brutally honest piece of work that has lost none of its ability to shock today.

By comparison, “Master Gardener” feels like a lazy attempt to stir up discourse by dangling race in our faces for shock value. The result is not only dishonest, there isn’t a single believable moment in its 111 minutes. Even taken as a parable, as some scenes imply it should be, it never delivers a coherent message.

Even worse, like “Armageddon Time” and “Empire of Light,” “Master Gardener” uses an underwritten minority character to absolve white guilt. Schrader has always been better at writing men than women, so my expectations for the biracial character, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), may have been too high.

Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is a stoic, soft-spoken horticulturist who works the grounds of a plantation in New Orleans. His hair is slicked back, not a strand out of place, a visual representation of his personality. Everything Narvel does is calculated to the point of compulsion, from his deliberate speech patterns to the meticulous way he tends the flower beds.


His boss, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), presides over the plantation and enjoys wielding her power over Narvel. He’s trapped in her employ for some mysterious reason. Norma demands sex from him on a regular basis and holds him accountable for the results of the annual flower auction she runs.

Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver in "Master Gardener," a Magnolia Pictures release. Magnolia Pictures

Narvel’s thoughts are recited in voiceover (another Schrader staple) as he jots them down in a journal. Mostly he reflects on his flowers and sounds as if he’s reading aloud a high school English report on some florid novel.

When Norma asks Narvel to mentor her twentysomething grandniece, Maya, whom she venomously refers to as being of “mixed blood,” we wonder what kind of sick game she’s playing. You see, Narvel’s big secret is that he’s a former neo-Nazi who is covered with swastikas and other white power tattoos. He’s in some form of witness protection program overseen by agent Oscar Neruda (Esai Morales).

Occasionally, Schrader flashes back to Narvel’s earlier, violent life, as if to jolt the audience awake with carnage. In one scene, Narvel murders a Black preacher in front of his wife and young daughter. We bear witness to this solely so that we can be “shocked” when Maya takes a sexual interest in the man who helps her get off drugs.


But who is Maya? How does she feel about being mistreated by her racist, rich great aunt? We never learn much about her, and what little we do learn is contradicted from scene to scene. For example, she is initially repulsed by Narvel’s tattoos, yet a scene later, she’s telling him “I really want to take off all my clothes in front of you now.”

The way Schrader stages the ensuing love scene is unintentionally hilarious because the relationship between the lovers is so overly simplistic. In this day and age, with writers of color interrogating interracial sexual dynamics and masochism in works like Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play,” this movie plays like a relic made by someone woefully out of touch.

The “racists need love and forgiveness, too” trope is beyond played out, as well. So is the older guy/younger woman thing.

Did I mention this movie is slower than molasses running down a hill in winter? Provoking an audience requires them to stay awake in order to be offended. The most offensive thing about “Master Gardener” is that it’s an unoriginal snooze.


Written and directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Esai Morales, Quintessa Swindell. 111 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, Coolidge Corner. R (racial slurs and imagery, brief nudity)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.