Master Gardener

  • 17 Jun - 23 Jun, 2023
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Reviews

Paul Schrader's loose trilogy of broken individuals seeking forgiveness in contemporary America comes to a close with Master Gardener. Joel Edgerton plays a haunted man who is willing to live with past guilt without sacrificing what he has left, while keenly examining what lies ahead, following the profound questioning of faith suffered by both Oscar Isaac's convicted Abu Ghraib torturer and First Reformed's alcoholic minister and The Card Counter's gambler played by Ethan Hawke. As a classic Schrader "lonely man," Edgerton's Narvel Roth is introduced in the film. Narvel addresses us in a voiceover and writes his diary alone in his small, empty home, just like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, still Schrader's most well-known screenplay, and the men in this most recent trilogy. He prophetically declares, "A garden is a belief in the future, that change will happen," as he painstakingly discusses the reasoning for various sorts of gardens and gardening techniques. Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) owns a New Orleans family estate called Gracewood Gardens, which is home to a lovely stretch of flowers and bushes. Roth is the head gardener at Gracewood Gardens. When Norma, who refers to Narvel as "sweet pea" and engages in weekly trysts with him, requests that he teach her mixed-race grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) his green-fingered ways, Narvel's small team is carefully preparing the gardens for an annual charity event. Weaver's deft treatment of Norma's familial guilt – or lack thereof – is consistent with the constant, subtle balance present throughout Master Gardener; it is measured and immaculate, like Schrader's sharp dialogue – or the finest plants Gracewood has to offer. As soon as Maya shows there, their bond between teacher and student and lover intensifies. Some people might recoil at Maya, in her early 20s, and Narvel, in his late 40s; Norma unkindly compares their relationship to Lolita. However, as their relationship grows, so do their issues: through random, infrequent flashbacks, we learn of Narvel's violent history in a gang and that he has been in witness protection for a while. Maya seems to be having addiction issues of her own, which causes some sketchy characters from her past to enter the Gracewood scene. The combination of drug abuse, gang violence, money, poverty, and complicated human relationships would be portrayed in less skilled hands in a melodramatic manner or merely as an unfathomable jumble. However, one has faith in Schrader because he obviously understands how to handle a spiritual crisis and skillfully handled race and class in Blue Collar and drug addiction in Light Sleeper. The restrained emotional core of Master Gardener (as well as Devonté Hynes' delicate score) are in line with the film's delicacy and dry visual aesthetic. Some viewers might find its pace to be overly deliberate, but as all true gardeners are aware of, patience has its own benefits.