'Master Gardener' Doesn't Reap the Harvest of Its Fertile Soil

Directed by Paul Schrader

Starring Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell

Photo courtesy of VVS Films

BY Prabhjot BainsPublished May 17, 2023

Paul Schrader tackles big themes in small rooms, fixating on broken, self-destructive men who find themselves alienated by the modernity that surrounds them and loners who accept damnation with open arms while using repetitive rituals to discipline their frayed minds. From his monumental screenwriting work in Taxi Driver to his searing religious treatise in First Reformed, Schrader has never failed provoke and interrogate the darkest corners of humanity through his existential lens.

His latest character study, Master Gardener, caps off a loose, thematic trilogy of sorts. Like the trilogy's first two entries, 2017's First Reformed and 2021's icily hypnotic The Card Counter, Master Gardener also meticulously leads to the threat of brutal violence. But unlike those previous films, the philosophical seeds Schrader carefully and magnificently plants utterly fails to blossom into anything meaningful or satisfying.

Opening with a stellar title sequence — something all too rare in today's cinematic landscape — that's flush with blooming flowers set against an austere void, wonderfully punctuated by a radiant, Vangelis-like synth score, Master Gardener wastes no time in establishing a powerful tone. The film centres on the daily routine of Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton, radiating a seething intensity), whose dirty overalls are contrasted by an uncannily pristine composition. His clean-cut, slicked-back appearance is the perfect manifestation of his unfettered, Zen-like discipline, which sees every word and motion carefully thought out and tactfully relayed.

He maintains an innate, poetic relationship with both the natural world and his employer, Norma (an acerbic Sigourney Weaver), for whom he tends the Gracewood Gardens.  These two forces have saved him from his hateful past, allowing him to exist in an almost primordial tranquility that conflicts with the inky swastikas that adorn his skin. 

When he's tasked by Norma to take on her troubled grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as an apprentice, Narvel's idyllic world quickly turns to chaos. Maya's drug-addled past quickly catches up to her, pitting Narvel's desire for her and his white supremacist past against each other. He's forced to violently confront Norma's seething disapproval and Maya's abusive, drug dealing ex-boyfriend, all the while maintaining his government-protected identity.

Schrader is a master at finding niche worlds and subjects, extracting their darkest elements to cement vocations like professional gambling, solitary preaching and, in this case, gardening as guises that struggle to cloak man's inherently cruel nature. He explores the horticultural world with a profound sense of grace and subtlety, prioritizing form over content to eliminate any excesses that might otherwise distract from the essence of the portrait he is painting. Even as more conventional dramatic complications surface, Schrader never relinquishes his sophisticated touch, delicately revealing relationships and secrets with a contained but no less impactful wallop.

This is particularly felt in the film's fascinating exploration of Narvel's desire when he falls for a younger woman of colour, whom he is too afraid to take his shirt off around due to the tattoos on his torso. Schrader captures such a complicated romance with a unique level of restraint, unearthing an implicit world of both healing and heartbreak. Edgerton's stoic, understated turn is key to realizing this effect, with his piercing blue eyes and solemn aura beautifully colliding with Swindell's wide-eyed melancholy. Their dynamic is gravitational and seamless, as the two are bound to each other by an inexplicable force despite their conflicting pasts.

Alexander Dynan's ethereally still cinematography, awash with slicing, enveloping wides, render the surrounding foliage and flora a picturesque stage for the narrative to unfold. The stark, dreamy visuals manifest as beds of flowers that strains to obscure the darkness taking root in the soil beneath it, giving way to a more muted palette as it continues its introspective descent that is buttressed by the layered, intricate synth score by Dev Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange). 

The film amounts to an entrancing, mesmerizing first hour that is lush with philosophical and spiritual weight. Unfortunately, Master Gardener strays from its verdant path, entering a barren environment that nips its thoughtfully curated buildup in the bud. The narrative stakes Schrader took great care in cultivating around Narvel's promising arc doesn't grow into anything worthwhile, swerving into territory that is sorely illogical and incongruous with everything that came before. The film also has the honour of including one of the most awkward, unintentionally hilarious sex scenes in recent memory, and a truly baffling dream sequence that feels ripped from a completely different kind of movie.

Master Gardener is a cinematic exercise that is entirely too wasteful of its incredible potential and carved from pieces that are often at odds with each other. In its opening monologue, Narvel posits that "gardening is a belief in the future … that change will come in its due time." Yet the stagnant Master Gardener never delivers on its promise, tilling its grounds with great purpose and vision but neglecting to nourish it to fruition.
(VVS Films)

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