Two people sit together in a private garden. Next to them is a black dog.

Film Review: Master Gardener

Film Reviews

Master Gardener
Director: Paul Schrader 

HanWay Films
In Theaters: 05.19

The release of Master Gardener signals the end of what writer/director Paul Schrader calls his “accidental trilogy,” which is to say that he accidentally made the same movie three times and had to call it a trilogy to save face.

Joel Edgerton stars as Narvel Roth (you’ll never see a Schrader protagonist named John Smith), the meticulous and zen-like floriculturist of Gracewood Gardens, an elegant Southern estate owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy dowager who appreciates beautiful things and likes to control them. Narvel leads a life of structure, tending to the needs of the flowers by day and occasionally tending to the more personal needs of Mrs. Haverhill by night. 

As the master gardener and his crew prepare for a major fundraising event, Norma saddles Narvel with taking on her grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindel, Black Adam) as an apprentice. Maya’s mother died from a drug overdose, and the young woman seems to be headed down a similar path. Narvel’s mentorship of the biracial 20 something blossoms into an ineffable connection that brings Narvel back to troubling memories of his shocking past, the specifics of which aren’t hard for us to guess at once he takes his shirt off and reveals that his body is a canvas for white supremacist tattoos. 

Master Gardener completes the thematic cycle that Schrader started with First Reformed and continued with The Card Counter. All three films have the same basic elements: a solitary man whose controlled exterior masks a wounded soul, redemption through an unexpected relationship with a woman who stirs something in him and finally a shocking act of violence. While Master Gardner is compelling enough to hold your attention, it’s both pretentious and flimsy. It feels underdeveloped in comparison to The Card Counter, which in turn wasn’t in the same league as First Reformed. As Schrader keeps making photocopies of himself, the quality decreases with each generation. 

Then, there’s the religious symbolism that is a hallmark of Schrader’s work, most laughably evident here when Norma literally casts Narvel and Maya out of the garden when she believes that they have tasted each other’s forbidden fruit. Master Gardener is thematically ambitious, touching on a number of potent subjects such as racism as a product of environment, substance abuse and the nature of forgiveness. Sadly, the film often gets distracted mid sentence,—like Grandpa Simpson telling a story, it trails off and forgets whether it even had a point to make.

The performances buoy the film through its roughest spots, and Edgerton’s powerful presence kept me engaged even when the story faltered. Swindell is a wonderfully expressive actress who elevates an underwritten character, yet I never felt sold on her relationship with Narvel as being anything more than circumstantial. Weaver is stuck with a silly character who can’t be salvaged, and I felt a bit embarrassed on her behalf. Thankfully, Alexander Dynan’s sumptuous cinematography makes each scene a treat to behold on visual level. 

Master Gardener has a lot going for it, and it’s definitely worth seeing if you’re a fan of Schrader or Edgerton, though I count myself as both and still found it lacking. While strong seeds are planted, what grows from them is undernourished and never quite as beautiful or impactful as you want it to be. –Patrick Gibbs

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