A film review by Craig J. Koban June 24, 2023


2023, R, 110 mins.

Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth  /  Sigourney Weaver as Norma Haverhill  /  Quintessa Swindell as Maya  /  Esai Morales as Oscar Neruda  /  Eduardo Losan as Xavier  /  Rick Cosnett as Stephen Collins  /  Victoria Hill as Isobel  /  Amy Le as Janine

Written and directed by Paul Schrader

It's safe to say that the 76-year-old Paul Schrader has been on one of the best rolls of his directorial career.    

As a screenwriter, he's arguably among the finest in his craft, having penned two of the greatest films of all time in Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER and RAGING BULL, but he's often overlooked for this work behind the camera as well.  One thematic element that seems to coalesce through many of his films is that of doomed men that are trying - via various unique means - to find some sort of personal salvation.  His 2017 religious drama FIRST REFORMED dealt with a man of the cloth having a crisis of faith and conscience.  That superlative work was followed up by the equally powerful THE CARD COUNTER from 2021, which concerned a career gambler with a decidedly dark and twisted past in the military.   

Now comes MASTER GARDENER, which Schrader has described as his last film in a self-contained trilogy that all deal with characters desperately searching for salvation when it doesn't easily appear within reach.  And much like his last two films, Schrader presents viewers with one kind of film (evoking certain expectations of the material) and then radically shifts gears and makes it something wholly different altogether.  MASTER GARDENER is not wholly about a gardener, just as THE CARD COUNTER isn't exclusively about gambling or FIRST REFORMED isn't solely concerned with exploring a priest's life.  There's an unparalleled level of supremely confident bait and switch tactics employed by Schrader in these films (his "Man in a Room" trilogy), and despite none of them having any crossover story or character elements, they nevertheless maintain thematic and stylistic similarities:  They're all handsomely shot productions, impeccably acted, leanly executed, and, yes, feature men trying to find grace in a graceless world, often with a woman spurring on their change.  

The best thing I could say about MASTER GARDENER is to know absolutely nothing about it going in (as I did) and watch it cold.  Watching this film being set up as a quaint tale of an obsessive-minded horticulturalist and then systematically alter course and delve into his haunted secrets makes for an endlessly captivating watch.

MASTER GARDENER is also a very tough film to talk about without succumbing to spoilers (which a shocking number of reviews out there have fallen victim to), so I'll attempt to keep this free of that.  The terribly underrated Joel Edgerton stars Narvel Roth, who certainly begins the film in quintessential Travis Bickle mode: He's s loner, sitting by himself a desk in a darkened room, and writing in his journal while providing a voiceover narration of what he's jotting down.  The difference here is that he works as a horticulturalist for Gracewood Gardens, an impossibly gorgeous estate owned and ruled over by Mrs. Haverhill (a stupendous Sigourney Weaver), a job that Narvel takes with the utmost pride and significance.  "A garden is a belief in the future, that change will happen," he eschews in his voiceover track, and his thought processes and techniques that he employs to ensure that Haverhill's estate looks its best has become the stuff of legend with his colleagues.  Everything early on in the story seems to be falling down a certain type of preordained path, that is until Schrader starts to slowly and methodically pull the rugs out from under audience members' feet.   



For starters, Narvel and Haverhill seem to have a relationship that goes well beyond that of an employer and an employee.  Narvel is a "master" at what he does, but is most definitely not the ruler of this estate, and Haverhill's shadow looms large over everything he and his staff do on a daily basis.  That, and Narvel and Haverhill are actually sleeping together in secret, which mostly stems from the fact that she knows a very twisted secret about his past that he has been trying to escape from for years.  For Narvel, becoming a gardener has served as a form of therapy and escape from his previous indiscretions, but his cruel history creeps up and reveals itself as the plot unfolds (which really comes to the forefront when he finally takes off one of his long-sleeved shirts, in a chilling reveal).  His life on the estate changes when Haverhill decides that her grandniece, Maya (BLACK ADAMS' Quintessa Swindell), will be arriving and placed under the care of Narvel, who's to show her how to attend to the gardens.  There's an aura of unmistakable mystery to Maya as well: She hasn't spoken to Haverhill for years, and even when they share what should be a warm moment for lunch, it turns sinister and hostile.  Then Maya comes to work on day after having been beaten to a pulp.  It appears that Maya has had a dicey history with a drug dealer, which draws Narvel into her world with both compassion and fascination.  He wants to save this girl, even though it draws serious condemnation from his lover and boss in Haverhill, which culminates with Narvel and Maya being expelled from the garden and forced to come face-to-face again with both of their sordid pasts.

Again, I don't want to divulge Narvel's past, other than to say that he loses himself in his journal writing and works in the garden as a way of atoning.  Schrader sure opens MASTER GARDENER with a refined elegance that never really hints at his story's true heart of darkness (it's an exquisitely rendered opening title card sequence featuring time lapse photography of flowers blooming in full view).  His job as a gardener is all about looking forward to the growth of his creation; there's no looking back when it comes to planting a seed and seeing what comes of it.  The seeds grow, evolve, and then become sumptuous flowers with open possibilities for more.  Hell, even invasive weeds that stick out like a sore thumb on the ground can be ripped out, eradicated, and have something else of value planted in their place.  Narvel himself mirrors his job.  He can't regress back to a past state, nor can he allow the twisted weeds of his dark past take a stranglehold of him.  He can't lose sight of what's happening at the moment now and what's to come moving forward.  Having said that, he also knows that his hate-filled past can spread - like plants and flowers - if managed and nurtured properly.  In a lesser filmmaker's hands, MASTER GARDENER could have easily come off as distractingly forced in its messaging and themes, but Schrader allows them to simmer naturally through his narrative and unravel one complex layer at a time.   

Schrader also has this unimpeachable knack for casting and getting just the right performances from his stellar cast.  The Australian-born Edgerton has been so rock solid and chameleon-like throughout his career in a rich multitude of film roles and genres that he has perhaps flown under the radar (and Oscar glory) for far too long.  His performance as Narvel is so measured, contained, and disciplined, especially because of how he communicates so much with body and facial language.  He has to evoke a character of mass contradictions without tipping the viewers off too much.  He's a fastidious man of purpose and drive, whose newfound life revolves around the garden creations he crafts, but he also harbors an unsettling level of stillness that looks like it could erupt in a long time (especially when his past rears up to the forefront).  Edgerton's key scenes with Weaver are sensational for the cerebral chess games that they play, with the latter having a field day of playing this social wolf in sheep's clothing (the actress has never been so unnerving in doing so little).  Swindell herself might have the trickiest character to play here, who has to initially show a shy and vulnerable young woman that's trying her best to acclimate to her new settings, but - much like Narvel - has a lot of negative baggage that is wearing her down and affecting her achieving any level of normalcy.  It's no wonder why Narvel and Maya seem hopelessly drawn together as their pasts creep together and intersect, leading to mutual systems of shared and needed support.  

MASTER GARDENER is a film that requires great patience from its viewers.  It's slow and leisurely in its early stages, and with purposely modulated pacing it may turn some restless people off.  If you stick with it, though, and allow for its plot twists and secrets to wash over you, then you'll be rewarded for your patience.  However, parts of me have to concede that this is a tad of a lesser achievement when compared to the impact of FIRST REFORMED and THE CARD COUNTER, and its final moments didn't quite have the same visceral gut punch impact.  MASTER GARDENER is the third best in Schrader's trilogy, but it's still - on the whole - a wholly mesmerizing and pitch-perfectly acted drama about another world-weary and tormented anti-hero that tries to find solace and inner peace in the present, but can't quite shake what has come before.  The film also further embellishes Schrader as a master storyteller that never feels slavish to industry status quos and formulas.  The manner that he thrusts viewers into these worlds and all while completely subverting conventional storytelling is a testament to his gifts as a filmmaker.

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