Master Gardener

Master Gardener

2023, R, 111 min. Directed by Paul Schrader. Starring Joel Edgerton, Quintessa Swindell, Sigourney Weaver, Esai Morales, Victoria Hill, Eduardo Losan, Amy Le, Jared Bankens.

REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., May 19, 2023

Life for Narvel Roth (Edgerton) seems pretty ideal. He oversees the stately Gracewood Gardens under the direction of his benefactor and employer Norma Haverhill (Weaver), an old-money widow. The two share a love of floriculture, a knack for emotional compartmentalization, and sometimes a bed, but that may just be one more of Narvel’s groundskeeping tasks. As Narvel and his crew begin preparing the garden for an important fundraising event, Norma tasks him with taking on her estranged grand-niece Maya (Swindell) as an apprentice. Maya’s mother is dead from a drug overdose, and the wayward twentysomething appears to be headed down a similar path, since she’s still running around with her mom’s dealer, RG (Bankens).

Narvel is a man with his own demons, which will surprise no one familiar with the work of writer/director Paul Schrader. Redemption has been an obsessive through line in Schrader’s career: the cost of it, the impossibility of it, the surprise of it, the grisly grace of it. Some completely arbitrary examples include Hardcore, Affliction, and Auto Focus, as well as recent portraits of fraying masculinity, First Reformed and The Card Counter. Master Gardener apparently ends his triptych that began with those last two, and the film does not deviate from these themes, save in one very crucial aspect.

But first to Narvel and his demons, which astute viewers will notice by the Hitler Youth undercut hair style and the fastidious placement of tools in his gardening dungarees. Narvel was a Neo-Nazi. Narvel was a really good Neo-Nazi, who murdered many people until he was caught and turned snitch and went into witness protection. Now it’s a decade later, he still has nightmares and his entire upper body is overcrowded with white power tattoos, and he lives in a meticulously sparse bungalow, writing nightly journal entries on horticulture that Schrader uses as a “language of flowers” commentary on the film itself. Naturally, Maya and Narvel fall in love; the evil drug dealer, RG, lays hands on Maya; and Norma, none too pleased with Narvel’s new girlfriend, expels the couple from the garden.

What (a kinder and gentler?) Schrader has crafted with Master Gardener is a fable of redemption. And there lies the deviation. For all its looming menace and potential violence, not to mention what the biracial Maya will make of Narvel’s past - a past literally written on his body - Master Gardener is sweet, and, horror of horrors, hopeful. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s tight focus on Narvel, complemented by Devonté Hynes’ score, adds to the film’s undercurrent of otherworldliness. Where an optimist sees archetypes, the cynic finds cliches, and the film ultimately stumbles to bring life to either. If the mercurial creator of Travis Bickle appears to be turning sentimental in his old age, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it sure is a curious one.

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More Paul Schrader Films
The Card Counter
Oscar Isaac takes the biggest gamble of his life

Trace Sauveur, Sept. 10, 2021

First Reformed
Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke burn in the divine for this meditation on faith.

Marc Savlov, May 25, 2018

More by Josh Kupecki
Io Capitano
Despite strong performances, migrant tale is broadly told

March 15, 2024

She Is Conann
Barbaric vision of how aging means eating your own youth.

Feb. 2, 2024


Master Gardener, Paul Schrader, Joel Edgerton, Quintessa Swindell, Sigourney Weaver, Esai Morales, Victoria Hill, Eduardo Losan, Amy Le, Jared Bankens

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