MASTER GARDENER is unlikely to go down as one of Paul Schrader’s most accomplished works, but the strange rhythm of the film is oddly captivating. Even if the film’s characters and interactions feel rigid, the whole is still intriguing.
Joel Edgerton leads as Narvel Roth, the meticulous and accomplished head gardener of the estate of Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Narvel harbours a violent past (confirmed with a nightmarishly shot Neo-nazi tattoo reveal) and has a strangely subservient sexual relationship with Norma. When Norma instructs him to take on her troubled grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice, the delicate equilibrium of the situation is upset.
From the beginning, the characters’ dialogue has an oddly stilted quality. It is an oddity that the most naturally flowing verbiage is when Edgerton narrates Narvel’s journal entries (shot with him at a desk, a clear recall of THE CARD COUNTER and FIRST REFORMED) or snippets of gardening history. This formality of interaction keeps the audience somewhat at arm’s length and puts Weaver’s Norma, in particular, adrift from time and place.
Indeed, the entire estate, especially the grand main house, has an off-kilter pseudo-Antebellum feel: dark-stained wood, elaborate curtains, classical furniture, and shaded balconies. Only a repeatedly prominently framed jellyfish wallpaper indicates otherwise. With different costuming, a still frame could easily place the film decades earlier.
“…the entire estate, especially the grand main house, has an off-kilter pseudo-Antebellum feel: dark-stained wood, elaborate curtains, classical furniture, and shaded balconies. Only a repeatedly prominently framed jellyfish wallpaper indicates otherwise.”
Only Maya’s appearance – in a bright t-shirt screaming ‘No Bad Vibes’, listening to modern music – jolts this weird bubble to the decidedly contemporary. The burgeoning connection between her (described as “mixed blood” by her great aunt Norma) and Narvel – both as an academic mentor and beyond – is fraught with explicit and hidden tensions, with Schrader’s script taking its time to develop the relationship. Swindell’s performance here is excellent, balancing the need to begin as a more guarded version of Maya with the more expressive role of the two leads.
The film is heavy with metaphors of cultivation, growth, and protecting the shoots of promise. Narvel himself has been plucked from poisonous earth and nurtured by Norma, albeit there is the hovering question of whether Norma is also constricting the man she insists upon calling ‘sweet pea’. Narvel’s hate-filled past is examined by comparing the ‘seeds of hate’ with the ‘seeds of love’; it’s no coincidence that Narvel’s internal monologue on a black aphid problem describes the need “to stop the outbreak in its tracks” right after Maya is beaten up by her drug-dealing boyfriend.
The inevitable lurch towards violence is arresting, but the film doesn’t flow as well as the story requires. Scenes and sequences shift abruptly, and whilst this reflects the jarring intrusion of Narvel’s past on his present, it doesn’t necessarily help illustrate the organic growth of the relationship with Maya. Even so, Schrader emphasises the rigid structures of Narvel’s life with the camera work, which is equally exacting and establishes a rhythm for viewers to follow.
Thematically, what MASTER GARDENER espouses – if anything – about redemption is an open question. On a surface level, it would appear Narvel benefits from a redemptive arc (which can seem unpalatable given his implied abhorrent transgressions), with his guilt apparent but subtle in Edgerton’s performance. However, seeing the calm demeanour shift to one laced with seething malice when threatening someone with garden shears would imply that a caged element of his former self remains. For the most part, Schrader seems uninterested in the backstory beyond the surface-level abhorrence it generates as a narrative pressure point. If anything, the film is more interested in probing the tension between those cultivation metaphors and the hate-filled imagery on Narvel’s body.
“Thematically, what MASTER GARDENER espouses – if anything – about redemption is an open question. […] If anything, the film is more interested in probing the tension between those cultivation metaphors and the hate-filled imagery on Narvel’s body.”
Although there are clear resonances here with FIRST REFORMED and, in particular, THE CARD COUNTER, MASTER GARDENER subverts their themes in a significant way. Rather than having ostensibly good men worn down by the moral ineptitude they come to find in their trusted institutions (religion, the military), Narvel is presented as beginning as morally bankrupt and only finding a moral compass via the structure of both Norma’s estate and the witness protection program. As he starts to move away from both, for different reasons but the same motivating factor – Maya – the question is whether he can maintain this improved moral outlook without these structures and his own carefully crafted environment.
MASTER GARDENER seems more of a question-posing film than a repudiation of morally hypocritical institutions. As a result, it may seem less impactful and more meandering than Schrader’s other recent work. However, as frustratingly stilted as it can be, Schrader still planted the seeds of something curiously mesmerising to watch grow.