"A strange love story and the glossing over of these characters past dampen Master Gardener's overall impact."
BY ELLIOT LINES MAY 15, 2023
In his recent movies, First Reformed and The Card Counter, Paul Schrader has veered towards the lonely man seeking redemption narrative, unfortunately Master Gardener doesn't sway from this format. A sombre low key affair, Schraders latest offers adequate performances across the board but a strange love story and the glossing over of these characters past dampen Master Gardener's overall impact.
A meticulous horticulturist, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), is devoted to tending the grounds of a beautiful estate owned by a wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When he's told to take on her troubled great-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice, his life is thrown into chaos and dark secrets from his past emerge.
It's clear throughout that Master Gardener is making an attempt to get the viewer to sympathise with these characters, especially Narvel. However the biggest problem it encounters is the way in which it handles the reveal of his complicated past which shrouds the whole film. By the time his white supremacist past is challenged it almost immediately gets forgotten about and resolved, and we're just meant to believe in that moment all is forgiven.
There is a strange dynamic amongst all the characters here. A web of intertwining relationships emerge throughout, with Narvel directly in the middle. At first you see his "servent" dynamic he has with Norma, in which he does as she pleases, to all extents. There is an air of acceptance for his past, maybe something she enjoys, but this is never a forgone conclusion just something that is hinted at. Then you have Narvel's relationship with Maya. There are subtle hints at romance, but nothing strong enough to muscle up to the depths this relationship goes, in reality anyway. There is a clear age gap, which only emphasises that un-natural feeling to their relationship and the end goal it reaches.
Despite all this, the performances across the board kept me entertained. Joel Edgerton gives his best as a man "redeemed", saved by the flowers and trees he now resides over. There is a dark edge to his delivery that shows all has not been well, but is all but recovered. Sigourney weaver is dialling it up in this dominant force of nature that will not take no for an answer. Quintessa Swindell plays off them both, holding her own in these complicated relationships her character develops. Whether these relationships feel real or not, it's certainly not the performances that cause this feeling.
Master Gardener forces its big moments upon you, but glosses over them with a unsatisfactory resolution. There are certainly qualities to be seen but its hard to look past the attempted sympathy towards a deeply un-fleshed out character.