Master Gardener 2023 Movie Review
Paul Schrader is back with another variation on his signature theme, although now it feels like a fifth-generation Xerox. Here again is the lonely, driven male – derived from the philosopher-hero of Bresson’s Pickpocket – broodingly writing his journal of an evening in conditions of monkish austerity, haunted by the existential revelations of crime and a violent past, trying to transform or subsume his trauma into some new vocational obsession.
Master Gardener has been described as the third film in a trilogy with First Reformed (2017) and The Card Counter (2021), although the resemblances go further back into his cv than that and Schrader is probably unique in that he is not merely an auteur but a genre unto himself. This new iteration is eccentric – an oddity, certainly, with its stately, formal dialogue set-pieces which feel somewhat like a modern translation or an adaptation of some older classic text. If Manoel de Oliveira were to direct a crime thriller, it might look like this.
The scene is an elegant country house with a back porch and beautiful extensive gardens – evidently a former plantation (with all the unspoken racial tensions that go with it) – ruled over by an imperious grande dame, played by Sigourney Weaver, called Mrs Norma Haverhill. (Did Schrader intend an echo of Miss Havisham?) Norma’s chief gardener is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a passionate and knowledgable horticulturist with a severe short haircut and side parting, like Ethan Hawke in First Reformed. He also has a kinkily close mistress-servant relationship with Norma.
Things between them get tense when Norma asks Narvel to take on her young grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice: we pick up on Norma’s suppressed bigoted distaste for her mixed-race background. But Maya does well in the job and when she starts getting threatened by a drug gang in her tough neighbourhood, Narvel’s own secret past in violent crime rises to the surface as he sets out to protect her.
Master Gardener ultimately defeated me: its characterisations and central relationships are stilted and unrelaxed, and the narrative transitions feel arbitrary and unmotivated. Oddly, this is most engaging when it is simply about flowers and plants at the very beginning, and the Buñuelian twist about Norma and Narvel’s private understanding just makes it more intriguing. But we’re entitled to ask: when did Narvel meet Norma? How did he conceive his passion for gardening? Satisfactory answers to these questions are not forthcoming.
Then there is the inevitable pivot to violence – bizarre, certainly, and also preposterous. Is there a psychic link between gardening and violent crime? (I don’t really think so, but I found myself thinking of the “gardening accident” that killed a drummer of Spinal Tap. Was it an accident?) And so the story begins its time-honoured slide towards macho retributive brutality. What next? A jockey who obsessively writes his journal alone in his room? A sommelier who obsessively writes his journal alone in his room? A toad-sexer who obsessively writes his journal alone in his room? Perhaps Schrader will indeed defiantly return to his accustomed theme for his next film – and this brilliant, restless director might well make it work. Sadly, this one doesn’t.