Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a dowager living in an old Southern Plantation well staffed with servants is particularly proud of her estate’s Gracewood Gardens, the site of an annual charity event. She has a disturbing relationship with one of her employees, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who she invites to dinner and into her bed. Narvel has kept his past hidden within the witness protection program, but that is about to be stirred up when Norma asks him to take on her twentyish biracial grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, HBO's 'In Treatment') as an apprentice to her “Master Gardener.”
Laura's Review: B
Writer/director Paul Schrader completes a trilogy of sorts which began with 2017’s "First Reformed." That film, along with 2021’s "The Card Counter," both featured men outwardly known by their vocations while inwardly struggling with serious personal demons. Each kept a journal, writing in monastic environments. Now we have “Master Gardener,” a film about a man defined by his work who writes in a journal in his simple living quarters and whose past is about to explode into his present. With its themes of redemption and callbacks to Bresson (most notably “A Country Priest”), this is classic Schrader right down to its protagonist resorting to violence to protect an innocent young girl (“Taxi Driver,” “Hardcore”). The film at once feels like a retread of the filmmaker’s oeuvre while also being more idiosyncratic and hopeful than his prior work.
Schrader dives right into gardening metaphors, Edgerton advising us in voice over on the differences among French, British and wild gardens. But Schrader’s use of the device runs far afield of “Being There’s,” his mentions of dead heading, viable seed and ‘ripping out the weeds’ commenting on Narval’s white supremacist past. And while Norma’s Master Gardener has ostensibly kept this past under wraps, the sexual demands placed upon him by the employer who calls him ‘Sweetpea’ means that she has seen all the Nazi symbolism tattooed upon his torso. In fact, it seems to turn her on.
So it isn’t surprising when Norma describes Maya as a sweet child of ‘mixed blood’ who used to visit the estate with her mother, but whose father was a bum, mother inadequate and who now has fallen in with a ‘bad crowd.’ Norma doesn’t even stop by to visit Maya when she arrives in her arranged car service, the perk that accompanies her minimum wage apprenticeship, but Narvel is there and kindly takes the young woman under his wing, soon impressed by her work ethic and intelligence while his nights are increasingly haunted with violent flashes from his racist past. He suggests Norma should pay a visit, but while clearly impressed with her relative, she finds Maya’s forthrightness offensive and calls her impertinent. She reacts far more harshly, making false accusations and demanding both leave when Maya arrives at Gracewood Gardens with a black eye and Narvel becomes obsessed with targeting RG (Jared Bankens), the responsible drug dealer, while insisting Maya stay on the grounds for her safety.
Edgerton, wearing a slicked back undercut that suggests his past more than his past long-haired bearded look, gives a very quiet, studied performance, one which works for this serious-minded character, rendering his vengeance all the more violent and his confession to Maya more heartfelt. Weaver bravely renders Haverhill a generational product of the Old South, a woman whose bad behavior is shielded by her wealth. Swindell, so complex in “In Treatment’s” second season, should get a career boost from her performance here as a young woman of hard circumstance but no pushover.
While the film’s first two acts take place in the sparse elegance of Haverhill’s estate, grounds, greenhouses and on site living quarters, only leaving for Narval’s meeting with his witness protection Marshall (Esai Morales) at an old school diner, the film’s third act goes on the road, first to Maya’s sketchy neighborhood, then cheap motels and botanical gardens. Cinematographer Alexander Dynan somehow transforms Narval’s Gracewood Gardens quarters into a love nest for the film’s finale, a romantic final image. Devonté Hynes’s electronic keyboard score, however, is monotonous and incongruous.
“Master Gardener” feels not quite of this world, a literal hothouse environment rendered chilly with its weird combination of formality and perverse familiarity. It is not until Narvel and Maya break free that the film comes down to earth.
Robin's Review: B
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is an expert horticulturalist tending to the extensive gardens of his wealthy boss, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). One day, she makes a special request of him: to take her grand niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as his apprentice. He agrees but this will upset his carefully hidden past life in “Master Gardener.”
Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader writes and directs this character study of a man hiding from his past and Joel Edgerton embodies that man. When we first meet Narvel, he is buttoned up in more ways than one as he goes through his meticulous daily routine. He is also responsible for Norma’s Gracewood Gardens entries in the upcoming annual horticultural auction.
Then, Maya arrives and, we find out, has never met her great aunt. Narvel, as instructed, takes the young woman under his wing, showing her the ropes of gardening, all the while, giving her the history of horticulture and growing things. But, there is a back story about Narvel and his past that unfolds and it taints our view of the man, at least at first.
This odd love story and tale of redemption is played out with just the three main characters telling the story. Each has his/her past and, while never getting a complete explanation, and we learn about them and their inner selves. It is a good lesson.
There is a kind of character triangle going on with an unusual relationship unfolding between boss and employee, the clouded relationship between Norma and her estranged grand niece and, finally, the relationship that develops between Narvel and Maya. The principal characters are well played as Narvel’s past comes into play and the picture comes into focus.
Magnolia releases "Master Gardener" in theaters on 5/19/23.