When “cancel culture” is finally understood to be “consequence culture,” maybe we can finally have adult conversations about what actual redemption might look like. Writer/director Paul Schrader should not lead that discussion.

In the first 10 minutes of “Master Gardener,” a film about a former Nazi who is all up in his feelings, Dame Sigourney Weaver is forced to say the phrase “tit cancer.” Whatever method we use to unpack whether some behaviors forever put a person outside of absolution, it shouldn’t involve that phrase or a filmmaker with a legitimate obsession with dudes who find salvation via their genitals.

In “Master Gardener,” Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is a soft-spoken plant lover whose name is not actually Narvel. That’s a witness protection name, which is hilariously stupid. “I know how to help this former criminal blend in to the background: We name him Narvel!” Anyway, Narvel grows stuff for Norma Haverhill (Weaver), who also does the sex to him. She is aware of his past and is super into it. For the record, her pearl-clutching lunacy is so easily the best part of the film it’s crazy.

Norma’s grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), comes to the estate with her luggage packed full of addiction, if not literal drugs. Narvel sees not only his own broken reflection in a non-White body but also someone much younger to do the sex with. When Maya gets attacked by local drug doers, Narvel springs into heroic mode. The two then begin a weird quasi-courtship that is supposed to be sweet but feels whatever word isn’t as problematic as problematic.

The problem isn’t that Schrader asks audiences to place Narvel’s soul opposite a feather on a scale; it’s that he puts his thumb on it. Although the central character may still wrestle with whether or not he is damned for who he was despite who he may yet be, everything about the film cheers for him. It is, unquestionably, better for a Nazi to no longer be a Nazi and to grow petunias instead of murder minorities. But the idea here seems to be that his pretty gross relationship with Maya is why he is finally free.

Maya enters the narrative as a mess and leaves it as a mess who now has a former Nazi as a boyfriend. She is but a vessel for Narvel’s deliverance, and nobody should be reduced to Narvel’s vessel. The optimism at the film’s end has been praised by critics who see it as a departure from Schrader’s other meditations on toxic dudes. Is it? Does it not suggest something potentially even worse to rain magic flowers down on a guy who hasn’t yet lasered off his swastikas just because he ratted out other Nazis to save himself and then White Knighted his lover’s grand-niece? Is that a “hopeful” happy ending to people?

Asking what steps are truly necessary to go from a Third Reich enthusiast to “okay dude” is actually a space in which art could grow, as if it were springtime for Hitler. This simply ain’t it. A big sloppy kiss planted on Navel’s mouth feels like an errant message at best and deplorable at worst. Too many soft petals and not enough thorns for this “Master Gardener.”

Grade = D

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Siddhant Adlakha at IGN says “at its core, it’s about the ways in which love and hate become so deeply entwined that differentiating them becomes an act akin to unraveling oneself from within.”

Rafaela Sales Ross at The Playlist says “this is Schrader, a man concerned not with dishing lessons on morality but with insistently prodding at the uncomfortable until something oozes out, a surgical process that cares equally about tearing as it does about healing. What lingers is the scar, a permanent, indelible mark that earns a specific form of longevity to a Schrader film.”

Leila Latif at IndieWire says “As with his previous works, Schrader’s commitment to moral ambiguity makes his work thrillingly divisive and near impossible to not have some form of a reaction to.”

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