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'Master Gardener' Review

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May 17, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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Master Gardener, the latest continuation of Paul Schrader’s “tormented souls with a past” series, opens as predictably as one would expect. A black-clothed man sits at his lamp-lit desk, writing down his daily thoughts in a journal while downing a glass of whiskey. The man talks about gardening as “the belief in the future, that the plans you make and execute will come through.”

The man, in this case, is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton, taking over from Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac as Schrader’s lonely jaded protagonist). He’s the head gardener for Gracewood Gardens, a renowned botanical heaven run by the estate of Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Despite being located within the heart of New Orleans, Gracewood feels like it’s cut off from the rest of the world. There’s a stillness in the air as the ritualistic gardening processes are performed year in and year out.

But that sense of serenity begins to waver with the arrival of Norma’s grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, last seen in front of umpteen greenscreens for Black Adam). Life has not been kind to Maya, nor has she made the right decisions as of late. Norma assigns her as Narvel’s appreciative, in the hopes that the diligence of the master will rub off onto the student.

If First Reformed was Schrader’s take on the climate crisis, and The Card Counter was about unregulated military cruelty, then Master Gardener is about the rise of the Alt-Right. Except for Norma, no one knows about Narvel’s past, which can all but be explained with one look at the litany of crosses, iron eagles, and swastikas tattooed all over his body. Narvel may be a completely different person now, but like his tattoos, the sins of his former self will always be with him.

Similar to what he did for Oscar Isaac’s character in The Card Counter, Schrader offers glimpses of those bad days with brief flashbacks. But unlike The Card Counter, which delivered those windows through uncanny and inventive filmmaking, Master Gardener spells it all out without much fanfare. There’s an alarming lack of nuance in both the specific beats of the plot and the way Schrader delivers them, always keeping us at an arm's length distance and with a raised eyebrow. The world and its characters feel much shallower this time around, with the “climax” being completely unsubstantiated and unceremonious.

Edgerton is more than capable of picking up this slack, especially in the first half as his narration and stoicism command the screen. His interactions with Weaver, who is as enchanting and domineering as the red dress she often dons, are hypnotically enticing. Even the occasional overly flowery (pun intended) line of dialogue (of which there are many) is sold with at least a little bit of authenticity.

Just as MCU films can only really be recommended to already-established MCU fans at this point, Master Gardener is a film that I can only recommend to those that have an understanding and appreciation for Schrader’s previous works. And even then, I wouldn’t get my hopes up for much.

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