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Movie Review: 'Master Gardener'

Review of the movie "Master Gardener":

By BM NandhakumarPublished 7 months ago 4 min read

When do a person's recurring themes start to seem like their shtick? When does repetition turn into an obsession? I wonder because "Master Gardener" (1/2, currently playing in theaters) occasionally plays like a spoof of a Paul Schrader movie. It occasionally brims with the unholy virtues and ethical contradictions of this director's finest work. One way or the other, it's a movie to be reckoned with.

Following "First Reformed" (2017) and "The Card Counter" (2021), Schrader has positioned "Master Gardener" as the third installment of a loose trilogy of what he considers his "Man in a Room" flicks. The latest film, like those two, centers on a hero who is disturbingly controlled and carries a nearly terrible burden of sin: While managing the exhibition gardens of wealthy estate owner Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), the movie's titular Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) reveals early on that he had a violent history for which he is making amends in numerous ways, not the least of which is by losing himself in the order and abundance of plant life.

Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a grand-niece who is struggling with drugs and is drawn to the quiet, meticulous master gardener like an iron filing to a magnet, is urged to join his gardening crew by Norma, with whom Narvel has what can only be described as an employee-with-benefits arrangement. Like Isaac's torturer-turned-card-counter and Ethan Hawke's repentant pastor in "First Reformed," Narvel carries violence within him that can only be tamed for so long by the calming certainties of horticulture. As a result, "Master Gardener" builds to a confrontation with both external antagonists and inner demons that feels like the director's version of Golgotha. What has changed from Schrader's earlier works is that he now thinks love is a sort of salvation. Given that he started his career by authoring a book about Robert Bresson (among other things), this director has always been our most devout Catholic in his balance of sin and unexpected grace. Schrader has since evolved into that great cinematic mystic's purest, most self-conscious descendant.

So why does "Master Gardener" trip over its own muddy feet so frequently? This time around, the speech is blader, which causes inappropriate laughter in several locations. You may understand the metaphor when Narvel says to Maya, "Plants rejuvenate; that's what they do," without him adding, "Like us." Weaver's character is a jumble of contradictory personality traits: a repressed prude with a kinky streak and a WASPy doyenne with a mouth like a sailor. Norma's habit of calling the gardener "Sweet Pea" jars on the ear every time you hear it, but the actress barely manages to make it work and make you understand how terrible Norma truly is. (However, one of her final quotes from the film is, "God damn it, Sweet Pea," which I'm afraid I'll use occasionally at home.)

The characters, especially Maya, are underdeveloped and appear to be motivated more by the requirements of the author than by their own internal logic. Finally, although being a wonderful actor, Joel Edgerton may simply lack the natural charisma to allow us to see the devil that dwells deep within Narvel, unlike Oscar Isaac, who made the card counter so fascinatingly bizarre, and Ethan Hawke, who brought a devoted man's agonizing loss of faith to the forefront of the screen. The way a cab driver might take in the ubiquitous evil

of the world and transform into a loaded gun to shoot it back out. Although "Master Gardener" is a good movie, it's more of a garden design than a garden itself. It implies that Paul Schrader needs to leave the room and bring his men with him.


1. "Master Gardener" is the third installment in Paul Schrader's "Man in a Room" trilogy, following "First Reformed" and "The Card Counter."

2. The film explores themes of sin, redemption, and the power of love.

3. The character of Narvel Roth, played by Joel Edgerton, has a violent history and seeks solace in managing the exhibition gardens.

4. Maya, played by Quintessa Swindell, is drawn to Narvel and joins his gardening crew.

5. Sigourney Weaver portrays Norma Haverhill, the wealthy estate owner who has a complex relationship with Narvel.

6. "Master Gardener" builds towards a climactic confrontation with external antagonists and inner demons.

7. The film reflects Schrader's Catholic upbringing and his exploration of sin and grace in his work.

8. The dialogue in the movie occasionally evokes inappropriate laughter due to its bluntness and lack of subtlety.

9. The characters, particularly Maya, feel underdeveloped and driven more by authorial requirements than their own internal logic.

10. Joel Edgerton's portrayal of Narvel Roth lacks the charisma to fully embody the darkness within the character, unlike previous performances by Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke in Schrader's films.

Overall, "Master Gardener" showcases Paul Schrader's signature themes but falls short in terms of character development and dialogue. The film hints at the director's need for fresh creative directions.

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BM Nandhakumar

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