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Review: Master Gardener (2023)

Master Gardener (2023)

Directed by: Paul Schrader

Premise: A horticulturist with a secret past (Joel Edgerton) oversees the gardens of a prestigious estate. He’s assigned to mentor the owner’s grandniece (Quintessa Swindell) who has had a series of dysfunctional and abusive relationships.

What Works: Master Gardener finds writer and director Paul Schrader revisiting some of the territory he previously explored in Taxi Driver and First Reformed. Here again we have a “God’s lonely man” protagonist who develops a relationship with a younger woman while narrating his struggle with disillusionment and violence. Master Gardener is nowhere near as dark or as nihilistic as Taxi Driver and First Reformed and it is distinguished by hope and the possibility of redemption. The film has a pair of exceptional performances by Joel Edgerton and Quintessa Swindell as Narvel, the skilled horticulturist, and Maya, his younger protégé. Edgerton’s character has a complicated history that is gradually revealed and the filmmakers do an excellent job doling out information and gradually piecing together his backstory. Edgerton is extremely good in this; his gait and delivery are restrained and the character’s regret and fear are evident throughout his performance. Of the female leads in each of Schrader’s “God’s lonely man” films, Maya is the most interesting. She has her own life and she is a complicated and flawed woman. The relationship between Narvel and Maya is also complex. The two of them face challenges together but they also reach a crisis in their relationship that they must overcome. Unlike the growing sense of despair in Taxi Driver and First Reformed, the trajectory of Master Gardener puts the characters on a path toward reconciling their troubled histories and finding a path forward. The various parts of the film fit together in an interesting way. The filmmakers don’t clobber the audience with the symbolism but ideas about power and nurturing are embedded into the images and scenarios of the film.

What Doesn’t: Master Gardener isn’t as aggressive or dark as Taxi Driver and First Reformed but it nevertheless feels a lot like Paul Schrader revisiting familiar territory and Master Gardener ranks third within this “God’s lonely man” trilogy. It does not achieve the intensity of its predecessors nor is it as affecting or as subversive. The conclusion of the film is its weakest point. The ending is satisfying enough and wraps up the plot and themes but it doesn’t do so in a way that brings the conflicts to a crisis. An earlier sequence between Narvel and Maya does that much more effectively and so the secondary climax is underwhelming.

Bottom Line: Master Gardener may not achieve the power of either Taxi Driver or First Reformed but the movie works as a complementary text to those pictures and it stands on its own as a thriller and a character study. It’s more accessible than we usually get from Schrader and possesses a hopefulness that feels authentic.

Episode: #950 (May 28, 2023)