Master Gardener: Review
Master Gardener Synopsis: Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is a meticulous horticulturist devoted to tending the grounds of Gracewood Gardens and pandering to his employer, the wealthy dowager Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When she demands that he take on her wayward and troubled great-niece (Quintessa Swindell), it unlocks dark secrets from a buried violent past.
A reclusive gardener at a wealthy estate reckons with his white nationalist past when taking on a new apprentice in Paul Schrader's latest, Master Gardener.
For Schrader, Master Gardener continues a second-act renaissance for the auteur. The Taxi Driver and American Gigolo screenwriter has re-established himself in the Hollywood zeitgeist as a writer/director with a compelling, character-driven perspective. Both First Reformed and The Card Counter left a lasting impression on me, piercing the core of fascinating subjects searching for solace amidst their dreary worldviews. Even 2013's The Canyons, which became the subject of tabloid-fodder headlines for its provocative subject matter, remains a hidden gem bursting with worthwhile ruminations on millennial dreamers. All of these works boast a salient understanding of different figures undergoing psychological parables through the prism of modern quandaries.
Master Gardener concludes a pseudo-trilogy of sorts. Where First Reformed and The Card Counter captured existential dread by focusing respectively on society's waning outlook and post-Patriot Act trauma, Gardener finds Schrader delving into a man burdened by the toxicity of his racially-bigoted history. I've seen many sour on Schrader's latest for its concept alone, decrying the existence of a feature that tries to discover a semblance of redemption for a seemingly unsalvageable character. Personally, I see merit in Schrader's intentions, but Master Gardener loses itself in the weeds of its thorny subject matter.
The blueprint here will be familiar to Schrader fans. Protagonist Narvel Roth dedicates himself entirely to horticulture responsibilities at the prim and proper garden of his socialite boss. He spends his days pristinely tending to the needs of growing plants, connecting with each distinctive flower in a manner that resonates with his rebirth. While gardening symbolizes a fresh start for Narvel, it only takes a reflective glance in the mirror at his tattoo-ridden body to be reminded of his past life.
When focusing on Narvel's day-to-day livelihood, Master Gardener operates comfortably within Schrader's wheelhouse. He plants thoughtful narrative seeds that dig into the trenches of the character's insulated existence; the constant journaling, the emotionally withdrawn narration, and Narvel's habitual dedication to gardening all help portray a man imprisoned by what he used to represent. First Reformed and Card Counter utilized similar story foundations, but Schrader reflectively eschews this formula. Instead, he frames Master Gardener as a more tranquil story - one more focused on discovering the light at the end of the tunnel rather than gradually spiraling toward the darkness (there is optimism in First Reformed and Card Counter, but it's a more arduous journey for viewers to get there).
This change of pace is felt most through his sensitive direction. Schrader basks in the serenity of his natural setting, implementing steady camera movements, enthralling long takes, and glacier pacing as he allows Gracewood Gardens to develop an impactful presence in the narrative. His tempered style fits the material like a glove, and even when he includes stylistic flourishes, they inject a refreshing sense of romanticism into the proceedings (a shared dream sequence depicting a flowery trail stands out). Star Joel Edgerton operates brilliantly in these confines. Edgerton continues to accumulate a fascinating resume of sturdy character actor performances. The role of Narvel offers Edgerton his most expressive canvas yet to get lost in, utilizing the actor's soft-spoken gravitas and captivating presence to bring the character to full bloom.
For all its strengths, Master Gardener eventually falls apart as its second hour begins. The prominent relationship Narvel develops is with his boss's grand-niece, Maya, a mixed-race young adult caught in the web of her consuming drug addiction. You can see how Maya is a kindred spirit for Narvel, both paralyzed by misgivings from their past, although there is a clear line in the sand dividing them. How can the duo form a meaningful bond when Narvel remains tethered to his history of racial prejudice and violence?
Schrader attempts at answering this question are woefully short-sighted. The concept of discovering peace despite a harsh racial divide is as relevant as ever in our societal landscape, and Schrader deserves credit for reckoning with challenging subject matter that few others would dare to touch. Still, his approach showcases a glaring lack of perspective. Schrader's ability to develop Narvel and his complexities is noticeably absent when it comes to Maya. Actress Quintessa Swindell sincerely tries to illustrate the character, but the role is devoid of nuance onscreen. Maya comes off as a device who solely exists for Narvel's growth; her thoughts and feelings are always an afterthought, which leaves their relationship taking on somewhat oft-putting connotations as it grows.
Schrader reduces the textured layers of his central cultural clash into a painfully rudimentary tale of "love conquers all." To tell a tale of healing racial trauma and completely fumble half of the story's perspective is a sizable failure by Schrader. As the second half plows forward simplistic sentiments and far too-clean conclusions, Master Gardener finds itself abandoning the promise of its premise in a substantial disservice to its real-world significance.
Master Gardener is a swing-and-a-miss for Schrader, although even his cinematic stumbles remain transfixing in their own way. I still look forward to seeing what the filmmaker conjures next.
Master Gardener opens in theaters on May 19.