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Review: Master Gardener

May 18, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The opening scene of Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener will be very familiar to those who watched the writer-director’s previous two movies The Card Counter and First Reformed. A man sits hunched over at a desk in a dimly lit room writing in a journal, as voiceover narration reveals the thoughts he is jotting down.

And these similarities are intentional; Master Gardener finds Schrader completing this Robert Bresson-inspired trilogy of sorts about tortured men with dark impulses trying to walk a righteous path. This is the weakest of the three (with First Reformed still remaining the strongest of the set), but a more minor work from Schrader still gives us plenty to chew on.

The man in question journalling his inner-thoughts in Master Gardener is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a horticulturist who oversees the sprawling garden on the estate property of wealthy widow Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). But Narvel has a dark past, which is revealed when he takes his shirt off in private and we glimpse the Swastika tattoos on his back.

Narvel was part of a violent neo-Nazi group in a previous life, and is desperately trying to cling to this second chance he has been given. Norma has a request for him; her troubled, estranged grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who is of mixed-race heritage, has come back into her life, and she wants Narvel to take her on as an apprentice in the garden. We can sort of see where this might be going, but Schrader doesn’t necessarily take a conventional path.

No stranger to exploring controversial topics throughout his career, Master Gardener finds Schrader once again stepping into contentious subject matter. We can sense the metaphors that he is alluding to throughout, with the idea of “weeding a garden” tying into eugenics, and the title perhaps being meant as a nod to the elusive Hitlerian idea of a “master race.” But Schrader’s layered, slow-burn approach keeps this from being a reactionary or simplistically provocative work.

Schrader is more interested in deeper, philosophical questions such as if bad people can turn good, or if a part of their past will always influence them. The film unfolds at a deliberate pace that walks a knife’s edge, unfolding mostly as simmering character drama, but one that could bubble over into actual thriller territory at any moment. The careful pacing is matched by cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s stately compositions of each scene.

It’s debatable how well each of the film’s individual elements are handled on first viewing, such as a surrealist driving scene that dips into fantasy, and a few moments with Weaver’s character that nearly tip over into melodrama. But Master Gardener has enough intrigue to keep us watching, and hidden meanings that I sense will continue to reveal themselves. The film is guided by Edgerton’s focused and quietly intense performance, with his Narvel Roth serving as another fascinatingly troubled soul sprung from Schrader’s mind.

Master Gardener opens exclusively in limited release on May 19th. It’s being distributed in Canada by VVS Films.

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