REVIEW: “Master Gardener” (2023)

I’m always excited when a new Paul Schrader movie comes our way. Interestingly the acclaimed and often outspoken director, screenwriter, and former movie critic has seen his cinematic voice evolve in recent years. Traces of the same thematic DNA in his work on films like “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo” can still be seen in his movies today. He’s still exploring many of the same interests that have fascinated him throughout his near 50-year career.

But movies like 2017’s “First Reformed” and 2021’s “The Card Counter” have revealed a more thoughtful and introspective approach. Both are methodical and precise in execution and focus. Both film’s are steeped in melancholy and revolve around tortured men in their own fiercely private states of crisis. Both feature stories that uncoil under Schrader’s patient and restrained watch.

His latest film, “Master Gardener” slides right in with “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter” to form a thematically connected trilogy of patiently searing character studies. Joel Edgerton operates on a similar bandwidth as Schrader’s other stars, Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac. They all play men navigating their own existential minefields. They all are burdened by their own remorse, repression, and self-abnegation. The ever sturdy Edgerton gives an intensely cryptic performance that proves to be a terrific fit for Schrader’s style and interests.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Much like the previous two films in this unofficial trilogy, “Master Gardener” is simmering with subtext about past sins, present day reckoning, and an uncertain future. Interestingly, this is the least cynical of the three movies although Schrader doesn’t shy away from holding a magnifying glass to and giving a sharp-edged critique of a number of relevant topics of our day. Still, there are shimmers of optimism and hopefulness – not many but more than you would expect from a movie with so many similarities to “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter”.

Edgerton plays Narvel Roth who (as the title intimates) is a master gardener. He’s low-key and taciturn yet he’s fastidiously dedicated to his craft and a veritable encyclopedia when it comes to horticultural facts and history. He oversees Gracewood Gardens, an estate of “curated botany” that’s owned by the wealthy and peremptory Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Narvel lives in a small but quaint cottage on the property where he spends his spare time filling pages of his journal with observations about gardening that mask deeper self-reflections.

Narvel and Norma have an interesting relationship. We learn that Norma took on Narvel despite his dark and troubling past which (in typical Schrader fashion) doesn’t come fully into focus until later in the movie. The gardens have been in Norma’s family for decades and she entrusts him with their care. And over time they have developed a mutual respect. He’s very honest and upfront with her and she seems to take his words to heart. But there’s no question that she clearly calls the shots and ultimately expects her wishes to be fulfilled.

One afternoon Norma tells Narvel about her grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell) who recently lost her mother. Soon after Maya dropped out of school and got in with a bad crowd. Norma describes her as being of “mixed blood”, her use of words and tone giving away her poorly veiled disapproval. Maya is coming to Gracewood and Norma wants Narvel to take her troubled grand-niece on as an apprentice, teaching her the ins and outs of gardening.

Image Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Much of the movie follows their relationship which evolves from teacher and pupil to father figure and daughter figure to potentially something more. Both are kindred spirits with pasts they are trying to overcome. And as you can probably guess, those pasts inevitably seep through the story. As they do Schrader plays around with our expectations, avoiding the more obvious path and taking things in some unpredictable directions. A part of me still questions where their relationship ends up, yet I found every facet of it compelling.

I do love Edgerton’s performance as it offers a beguiling portrayal of a solitary man seeking atonement. Whether it’s the current day scenes or the brief yet unsettling flashbacks, Edgerton captures our attention and keeps it clutched as the layers of his character are slowly peeled back.

But perhaps most interesting is the question of how certain viewers will respond to Narvel. In a day when social media too often decides both judgement and forgiveness, I can see some people recoiling to such a degree that they’re unable to accept where the character goes (vague, I know). I think that’s a struggle Schrader wants people to have. And as with the other two films in this loosely bound trilogy, he’s all about getting his audience to wrestle with uncomfortable themes.


12 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Master Gardener” (2023)

  1. It sounds grim, and when you only watch 1 movie a week it has to be well special to get on the list, not sure this reaches that level. 5 stars or bust!

  2. This is a film that I want to see. Paul Schrader has been on a roll lately as I still need to see The Card Counter as it was on HBO I never had time to watch it and I don’t have HBO anymore. I’m still unsure about subscribing to MAX though I was happy to see David Zaslav get booed at Boston University. What an asshole.

      • Oh Keither.. Weaver’s character exploits Edgerton’s in her boss lady role.. then the whole middle aged white man exploits younger woman trope. And that’s leaving out all the BS with a young mixed race woman would even go out with a white supremist. ex or no.. i mean it’s 2023..when are we going to rest the tired trope of older man has to have much younger woman trope. I get it..Schrader is of a different generation and those movie didn’t used to get a blink..but they have now for some time. It was a hard watch for me that I had to pause on a few times..then I felt like I needed to shower. icky! but hey.. that’s just me! 🙂 you’re going to have to work yourself back into my good movie zone friend after this. hahahahahahahaha

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s