Master Gardener ★★
Availability: Just released in theaters, showing mainly in major cities in the United States and wordwide; for future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.
Paul Schrader has been a major presence in American cinema for a half century, directing 24 films and, as a scriptwriter, giving us “Taxi Driver” (1976) and “Raging Bull” (1980) and earning a Best Screenplay nomination from the Academy for “First Reformed” (2017). “Master Gardener” isn’t on that level, or even close, and the script—Schrader’s forte, though he’s both writer and director here—is at fault. It’s riddled with improbabilities, inconsistencies, disconnects, and more than one absurdity.
Right, "master director" - and writer
- Paul Schrader, with gardening
and other supplies, on the set
of his last film, "Master Gardener."
“Master Gardener” is two films, clumsily linked by a misunderstanding.
“Master Gardener” is two films, clumsily linked by a misunderstanding. The first, nicely slow-paced, methodical, and credible as a story, appears to be about whether Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a “mixed blood” young woman with a troubled upbringing and a history of drug use, can be successfully integrated into the culture of fabled Gracewood Gardens. Maya has the support of her great-aunt Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a neurotic Southern dowager (from whom the term “mixed blood” comes) whose family has owned and tended the gardens for generations. Maya’s tutor is the talented, obsessive Master Gardener Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who seems to have transcended his own dysfunctional past, presented through occasional flashbacks.
Above, two-thirds of the improbable love triangle, Narvel (Joel Edgerton)
and Norma (a miscast Sigourney Weaver).
In the second of the “films,” Maya and Narvel become entangled in the drug scene of New Orleans, a clichéd world of punks and degenerates and low-lifes (all caricatures; it’s difficult to conceive of a more caricatured “bad guy” than R.G., Maya’s pusher [Jared Bankens]), culminating in vigilante justice meted out at a decadent “party house.” “Master Gardener” has been described as a drama and a thriller. A drama it is.
When the script has Narvel putting a gun in Maya’s hand, it’s clear that Schrader has lost control.
Rippling through these stories is a bizarre three-generation love triangle. Norma (Weaver is 73) is having a scheduled, once-a-week tryst with Narvel (Edgerton is 48), who appears to be servicing his employer. Enter Maya, the attractive and engaging newcomer (Swindell is 26). To move the plot from the first story to the second, Schrader’s script must expel Narvel and Maya from the Edenic “garden,” which occurs when Norma discovers that the two are having sex (which they aren’t—the fateful misunderstanding). Another of many contrivances is the switch of Narvel’s handlers—he’s been in a witness protection program for years—which somehow convinces the gardener to risk his own life (and his protection as a witness) and Maya’s. When the script has Narvel putting a gun in Maya’s hand, it’s clear that Schrader has lost control.
Left, Narvel (Edgerton) with the third side of the love triangle, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), an undeveloped character, at best.
Neither of Narvel’s relationships seems real, in part because Narvel is the only real person in the film (in that sense, the title is apt). Neither Norma nor Maya is a developed character. Norma is unchanging, cold, and judgmental (and she looks silly in her gardening outfit)—a static, unappealing presence, not unlike the colonial mansion she inhabits. Weaver, like many aging actors who take character roles, is miscast. And it may be because of her age that Schrader had to make Maya her grandniece rather than her niece, introducing complexities of family lineage that add baggage to the script.
Maya is friendly and willing, but otherwise barely exists, her background—beyond drug use and physical abuse—a blank. The film should be about Maya finding herself; Narvel says she’s “missing something.” But that search for self, and the filling in of whatever is missing, never happens. She’ll dance with Narvel on his porch, but the source of their attraction remains a mystery. In a scene reminiscent of the dream-like visual spectacle of “The Wizard of Oz,” Maya and Narvel exult in a shared appreciation of a rare outburst of roadside blooms, though what we know of Maya’s work experience suggests no special fondness for flowers, certainly nothing to compare to the depth of Narvel’s knowledge and poetic affection. One is left with the possibility that the tie between them is purely symbolic, of a social and political coming together: a Black woman and a white nationalist, in an embrace.
The gardens are an obvious, and not unreasonable, symbol—of regeneration and renewal, perhaps of grace (Gracewood Gardens). But “Master Gardener” fails to deliver even on that promise. Although the annual fund-raising auction is just weeks away, the gardens seem something less than special and intense, a quality enhanced by the filming, which apparently took place mostly on cloudy days. Dead leaves abound. Gracewood Gardens seems oddly dry.
That dryness, too, may be symbolic, or a metaphor. But it would be wrong to elevate the production by engaging it as a creative work of hidden merit. “Master Gardener” is an ordinary film, replete with flaws—hardly a match for “Queen & Slim,” a similar story, also set in the South, featuring two people deeply in love.
One wishes Schrader, the “master screenwriter,” had shown up.
Director: Paul Schrader
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, Jared Bankens
Country: United States
Runtime: 111 minutes
Other Awards: 1 win and 2 other nominations