Master Gardener Review | Heritage Variety

by Andrew Parker

Although it’s yet another familiar tale of a lonely, broken down man trying to distance himself from a past that won’t stay buried from writer-director Paul Schrader, Master Gardener is also one of the filmmaker’s most uniquely hopeful entries. Although there’s more than enough darkness and discomfort to go around in the Taxi Driver and First Reformed writer’s latest, and clunkier dialogue and escalation than some of his better works, Master Gardener gradually breaks from Schrader’s downtrodden filmography and towards something a little more unique and graceful. It’s a lesser work from Schrader, but far from his worst and bearing some fruit by the end.

Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) has dedicated his life to horticulture, botany, and gardening, tending to the sprawling grounds owned by wealthy, privileged, and demanding old money spinster Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), as well as seeing to her own “personal” needs on the side. Narvel oversees a modest full time staff that’s soon to include Maya (Quintessa Swindell), the mixed race niece that Norma wants to give a job to, but isn’t in a rush to make acquaintances with. Narvel takes a shine to Maya, even developing a romantic affection for her, but he’s harbouring a dark secret. Narvel used to be a high ranking killer working for a white power organization, and he’s currently in witness protection for rolling over on his old running buddies and reforming his ways. When Maya runs afoul of an abusive drug dealer (Jared Bankens), Narvel flirts with the idea of returning to his old ways to protect his new friend, protege, and lover, even if it costs him his job and the safety his current anonymity provides him.

Master Gardener is a film that’s constantly at war with itself, but not always in the productive sort of way that the story and its characters might suggest. While Schrader has made some highly intelligent and subtle films in the past that are richly steeped in literary tradition and transcendental theory, Master Gardener more often than not comes across as unnecessarily highfalutin and scatterbrained. If character names that sound like Schrader was randomly selecting authors from his bookcase and mashing them together wasn’t a clue that the writer-director was going for a literary bent with this one (including a kindly detective named Neruda, played nicely by Esai Morales), the frequently jarring didacticism of his dialogue should make things glaringly obvious. Master Gardener spends so much time keeping the viewer at arm’s length by saying things like “Money is the best manure” with all the pithiness of a brandy snifter come to life. It’s an annoying late-Schrader trademark that has impacted all of his recent efforts, with the exception of First Reformed, where the biblical connotations actually helped the writing make perfect sense.

In terms of storytelling and structure, there’s nothing out of character from Schrader here, both positively and negatively. Master Gardener once again features an antihero who voices their journal entries aloud (to little tangible gain this time out), but Schrader’s connection to both human and environmental nature is as strong as it has ever been here. The very nature of gardening is malleable; one of perpetual change built upon all the dead, dying, and decaying life that trod across the same ground in the past. The most zen and transcendental of gardens are built upon cycles of volatility, death, and desire. Love and hate grow from the same place (as the film’s tagline and dialogue make apparent), rising from a perfect alchemy of sunshine, rain, and manure. While Schrader is laying the subtext on as thick as possible in Master Gardener – suggesting he came up with the metaphors before any of the characters or plot – it’s still distinct and reasoned. It’s never subtle, and the morality in play is handled like a shrug, but it’s definitely in line with some of Schrader’s greatest hits.

Schrader’s overtly fussy handle over his narrative metaphors leads to some unevenness in plotting in the first half, but it’s even more disappointing when the second half finds the writer-director safely retreating to the sort of lone gunman revenge potboilers he’s best known for. Whereas the first half of Master Gardener is intriguingly etherial in spite of its flaws, the second half is rather standard and predictable. This choice of plotting throws the relationships of the characters out of alignment. The relationship between Narvel and his emotionally abusive boss is clearly meant to look like a master-slave dynamic, which is off putting when the third primary character is a woman of colour, and Schrader is unwilling to parse what that all means. As for the budding romance between Maya and her protector, it’s patently unbelievable because it’s robbed of any credible build, with the reveal of Roth’s past as a neo-Nazi landing like a thud instead of a shaking revelation or display of vulnerability for either character.

But the actors are trying their best to sell the material for Schrader, and they have some understanding of the themes in play. Edgerton’s performance and appearance is perfectly modulated to Schrader’s rhythms. Weaver delicately depicts a sheltered, obstinate person of wealth without any ironic winks or campy touches, appearing more wicked and believable in the process. Swindell is a good enough performer to display some chemistry with Edgerton, in spite of the fact that the script never does her underwritten damsel in distress role any true favours. They make up a great deal for a lot of the bland visuals and stop-start pacing that keeps dragging Schrader’s work here further down to Earth.

But in spite of the second half of Master Gardener feeling more traditionally like a Schrader film in tone, there’s also something remarkable to find in this mess of tones and ideas. Master Gardener might be the most hopeful film of Schrader’s career. It never absolves Narvel of his past, redeems Norma, or promises a bright future for Maya, but there’s a suggestion that in time peace and promise might be achievable. There are scenes in Master Gardner so locked in to a feeling of warmth and discovery – including a shockingly charming late night romp through some flowers – that one wonders if a chip has been made in Schrader’s often caustic, ornery, and downtrodden exterior. It’s a lovely note to see in a work that might be one of the aging filmmaker’s last films, even if the movie around those sentiments might be one of their more middling efforts.

Master Gardener opens in theatres across Canada starting Friday, May 18, 2023.

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