Review: “Master Gardener”

If First Reformed asked, “Will God forgive us?” and The Card Counter asked “Is there is a limit to punishment?” while asserting that “the body remembers,” the prevailing question that Master Gardener—the third piece in what has been dubbed writer/director Paul Schrader’s “God’s Lonely Man” trilogy—asks its audience is something a little less fraught: “Are you satisfied with the life that you have?” And yet, with Master Gardener’s protagonist, Schrader—whose previous films tackled religious eco-terrorism and war crimes—wades through the thorniest issue yet: America’s original sin, white supremacy.

The resulting film skews remarkably close in structure and theme to The Card Counter, although all the hallmarks of Schrader’s work are ever-present. A man with a troubled past and a penchant for journaling takes on a unique profession; the introduction of a younger character and their ideals shakes up his world; it all explodes in a violent finale. But with each of these films—and Master Gardener is no exception—Schrader has also proved himself to be a romantic, someone who demands that his audience consider disturbing questions but at the end of the day finds a sliver of hope in the future. But with Master Gardener, despite being a handsomely mounted production with fine performances across the board, Schrader examines these ideas with the least amount of care and nuance to date. And for a narrative whose origins are rooted in racial conflict, that’s a problem.

Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver in “Master Gardener”

The Master Gardener of the film’s title is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who tends the land at Gracewood Gardens, a Louisiana plantation owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, so delightfully vamping it up it’s as if she’s in a different movie from everyone else), a middle-aged, wealthy white woman whose lifestyle as we see it isn’t unlike the plantation owners of old; she lives alone in the lavish “big house” with servants to prepare her meals, fix her drinks, and tend to her every need, rarely venturing past the front porch to mingle with the gardeners who work under Narvel (it can’t be a coincidence that the majority of the garden staff are people of color). Narvel, who Edgerton portrays with restraint bordering on blandness (that’s not a knock; his reservedness is an integral part of the character), has an amiable rapport with Norma, but it’s also immediately clear by the way that she summons him up to the house, presses him to have dinner with her, and later uses him for sexual favors, that she has some power over him. That’s because Normal is aware of Narvel’s past, which isn’t indicated to the audience until a little ways into the film, when Narvel, alone in his cabin, removes his shirt—and we see the swastikas that cover his tattooed back.

Just how Narvel made the leap from participation in a white power group to gardening for Norma is unveiled gradually through flashbacks sprinkled throughout the film, and a conversation Narvel has with the officer he meets with at a local diner every so often (Schrader gives us a little taste of his sense of humor when we glimpse that the officer is wearing a “We should all be feminists” T-shirt). But the wrench thrown in the serene and ordered life he’s built for himself, so precise that he even keeps track of the garden’s various plants on a spreadsheet, arrives in the form of Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Norma’s grand-niece. Maya used to visit Gracewood with their mother frequently as a child, but Norma hasn’t seen them since then. With both of their parents and their grandmother out of the picture, Maya, now a young woman, has fallen in with a bad crowd and developed a drug addiction. Norma wants Narvel to take on Maya as an apprentice in the garden, but it’s also abundantly clear from the way that she speaks to Narvel about them and later how she interacts with them directly that she wants to keep Maya out of sight, out of mind as much as possible. A lot of that could be due to what Norma surely considers disgraceful habits; a lot of that could also be due to the fact that Maya is biracial.

Quintessa Swindell and Joel Edgerton in “Master Gardener”

The relationship that develops between Narvel and Maya quickly evolves into something more than the presumed pseudo-father/daughter or master/apprentice bond. As Narvel narrates in a quote lifted for the movie’s tagline, “the seeds of love grow like the seeds of hate.” It’s not the most subtle of metaphors; Narvel tends to Maya like he tends to his flowers, nurturing them until they begin to grow and thrive. Narvel becomes so involved in helping Maya break free from their sins that it’s clear that he is by extension trying to absolve himself, but this is where Master Gardener, for all the compelling and challenging ideas it puts forth, starts to get messy. The film takes a big turn in its middle act, and while it’s always nice, especially nowadays, to see filmmakers taking risks, the characters aren’t authentic enough for their arcs to feel earned. Schrader asks the audience to believe that a Black woman would suddenly fall for a much older, former white supremacist, as if his promise to erase his tattoos also erases his past actions and beliefs. That’s not to say that certain people aren’t deserving of forgiveness, but when it comes to Narvel, Schrader offers little reason for us to. Narvel’s past, the hate groups that have only become more vocal in America over the past several years, the fact that Narvel is sent to a plantation where enslaved people once lived and worked as the first step on his path to redemption, and that it’s a Black woman who shepherds him to the end of that path: these things are strewn about Master Gardener like decoration, not like thoughtfully fleshed-out concepts. This is especially true of the plantation that serves as at least half of the film’s backdrop, a setting that has been romanticized in media for as long as there’s been movies, opting for beauty over bloodshed (I do, however, declare Norma’s porch dog, named Porch Dog, innocent). Schrader’s filmmaking is as technically impressive as ever, his cold, meticulously-framed shots eventually giving way to a surprisingly colorful flights of fancy, and Edgerton turns in what may be the best performance of his career. Some dismiss Schrader for returning to the same themes and archetypes over and over again, but the past several years he’s put out some of the best and most exciting work of his career. I wish I could say that about Master Gardener, however. For all its beguiling surface-level concepts, it’s rotten at its core.

Master Gardener is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated R.

2 thoughts on “Review: “Master Gardener”

  1. well done review! I was not a fan. The explotation level was too high here for me. First with Weaver’s character exploiting her ‘boss woman’ status with Edgerton.. and then his explotation of the middle aged man exploiting a woman 1/2 his age. let alone the white supremist/mulatto part of it. it was ridiculous and I’m so over this tired trope.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Yes, I don’t know if it ever would have been possible to pull off that aspect of the story but the script definitely needed more nuance if they were going to attempt to. And it just wasn’t there. It felt a bit gross.

      Liked by 1 person

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