With Master Gardener, American director and screenwriter Paul Schrader is back with another variation on his signature theme. Here again, is the lonely man writing his journal in conditions of monkish austerity, haunted by a violent past and seeking some sort of redemption for his horrible sins.
Master Gardener has been described as the third film in a trilogy with First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021) and is set in an elegant country house with a back porch and beautiful wide gardens – clearly a former plantation – ruled over by an imperious grand dame, played by Sigourney Weaver, called Mrs Norma Haverhill. Norma’s chief gardener is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a passionate and knowledgeable horticulturist with a severe short haircut and a past as a neo-Nazi. Norma and Narvel have a (rather disturbing) mistress-servant relationship, of which we only get a quick glimpse. Things between them get tense when Norma asks Narvel to take on her young grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice. We immediately sense Norma’s suppressed bigoted distaste for her mixed-race background but driven by guilt (Maya has just lost her mother), she decides to give the girl a chance. Maya seems to enjoy and excel at the job, and when she starts getting threatened by a drug gang in her tough neighbourhood, Narvel’s secret past in violent crime rises to the surface as he vows to protect her.
The pleasures of gardening are largely celebrated in this film: how it calms the mind and heals the soul, and how it rewards patient labour and nurturing. Although these are lovely and possibly true considerations, the gardener’s monotone voice listing them in the background, like an omniscient narrator, is slightly off-putting and dissonant within the context of a brutal, dark film like this one.
Although it has some strengths, such as the dark fairytale-like atmosphere and Edgerton’s great performance, Master Gardener, the relationship between Norma and Narvel is too unconvincing and the pace of the story unnatural. Narvel and Maya’s sexual relationship, which develops unexpectedly and is deliberately extremely problematic, isn’t visceral enough to get under your skin, which means that the director ultimately fails in his mission to shock and provoke.
In conclusion, Master Gardener contains the themes necessary to create an intriguing feature, as well as impressive performances, but strained by self-importance, it still feels stilted and nebulous compared to Schrader’s previous films.
Master Gardener is released in select cinemas on 26th May 2023.
Watch the trailer for Master Gardener here: