Written and Directed by Paul Schrader.
Starring Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, Esai Morales, Eduardo Losan, Rick Cosnett, Victoria Hill, Amy Le, Samuel Ali, Erika Ashley, Jared Bankens, Cade Burk, Christian Freeman, DJames Jones, Matt Mercurio, Bruce Mohat, and Suzette Lange.
A meticulous horticulturist who is devoted to tending the grounds of a beautiful estate and pandering to his employer, the wealthy dowager.
Writer/director Paul Schrader’s modern trilogy of brooding men infested with dark pasts continues to suffer from the law of diminishing returns. Master Gardener is the first bad one of the three (although not without some redeeming qualities), a movie with daring plot turns that I’m not necessarily against even with a white filmmaker trying to make it work. If anything, the downfall comes from weak screenwriting that relies on certain Paul Schrader tropes as a crutch to push the characters and story forward into a dynamic that feels both unconvincing and unearned.
Joel Edgerton is Narvel Roth, a reformed gardener for Norma Haverhill’s (Sigourney Weaver) estate. He was once part of a very bad crowd (the only reason I’m not spoiling it is that the movie itself does so little with the information, that it might as well be withheld), regularly did horrible things he can’t take back, and eventually ratted those people out to the authorities where he was given a new identity and detective to report to while laying low, attempting to live out a peaceful life with his remaining years.
As previously mentioned, this is a Paul Schrader movie, where no one simply exists freely. There is some overly complicated exposition, Norma explains that her estranged mixed-race great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) is a directionless young adult stuck within a toxic environment that will be coming to the garden, learning the tools and tricks of the trade, to essentially end up on a more meaningful life path. For whatever reason, Paul Schrader has written Norma less like a person and more like a character that says and does things to cause whenever drama necessary to keep the movie moving; there’s rarely a moment where Sigourney Weaver isn’t chewing the scenery for one reason or another, which actively sticks out in a film where everything else is treated with a degree of nuance.
Then there are the endless gardening and flower metaphors and allegories, that are expressed in such a stilted fashion that there’s no question the screenplay is coming from someone that looked up and taught himself a few things about gardening to tie into a story, and not an actual gardener. It sticks out like a sore green thumb and often comes out corny; ironically, Master Gardner is least engaging when it is about gardening.
This is doubly frustrating as once the script does push Narvel and Maya (who is refreshingly not played like an explosive, immature adult consistently acting irrational, which one might fear before the character is properly introduced) into an uncomfortable dynamic, the juxtapositions, the story, and performances are riveting and make for a strong 30-minute stretch. There’s a moment where Narvel removes his shirt at night before writing into his diary (another signature trademark for this trilogy), revealing a set of disturbing tattoos, potentially because he does want Maya to see who he was in the past or mistakenly assumes she is asleep. It’s not something that’s easy to come out and say, and it’s unquestionably weighing heavy on his conscious (something amplified by the intoxicating score from Devonté Hynes that puts viewers right into this mentally troubled mind), so it is compelling watching him slowly bring down those walls.
Where Paul Schrader is ultimately going with this dynamic isn’t so much preposterous and insulting as it is simply underwritten. There is little effort to flesh out Maya’s character or move on from equally cardboard villains that come back into the picture for some last-minute suspense. Even Narvel’s backstory often feels like a badly edited afterthought. However, the performances from Joel Edgerton and Quintessa Swindell are so subdued and movingly full of pain, that the endeavor almost works. The characters, specifics, and details needed a bit more flowering to make Master Gardener blossom into something provocatively great about redemption and second chances.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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