Master Gardener (2022) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): The Gardener in the Room

Paul Schrader’s latest film “Master Gardener”, which was recently shown at the Jeonju International Film Festival in South Korea, is another typical drama of his which sadly does not work as well as intended for several glaring bad reasons. Again, Schrader attempts to tell the familiar story of a solitary man austerely struggling alone with his hidden dark sides, but his own storytelling story does not fit that well with the pulpy aspects of the story and characters, while also regrettably showing how out-of-touch he can be.

The titular hero of the story is Narvel Roth (Jeol Edgerton), who has worked as the chief gardener of some lovely Southern manor owned by a middle-aged dowager named Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). While he does not say much about himself, we get to know more about him bit by bit as he routinely writes his private journal just like Ethan Hawke’s priest character in “First Reformed” (2017) or Oscar Isaac’s gambler character in “The Card Counter” (2021).

As the important annual horticultural event for Mrs. Haverhill is coming, Narvel and his several fellow employees certainly have to pay more attention than before while expected a lot from Mrs. Haverhill, and then there comes an odd request from her. It turns out that she has a young grandniece, and, because this young lady is incidentally the only close family member of hers, Mrs. Haverhill wants Narvel to prepare her grandniece for taking over the estate and its garden someday.

When Maya (Quintessa Swindell) begins her first day at her grand aunt’s garden, she seems to be eager to learn one thing after another from Narvel, and everything looks fine during her next several days, but Narvel gradually senses that something is not all right with this young woman. After all, as his employer already told him, she had a rather troubled childhood due to her problematic parents who are already dead at present, and Narvel becomes more watchful when he comes to recognize later that she actually has an addiction problem just he did a long time ago.

Not so surprisingly, Narvel turns out to have kept something quite dark behind his back for years. While he simply wants to lead the quiet and peaceful life of a gardener as before, he also keeps reminding himself of his very troubled past, and that is quite apparent to us when he takes off his shirts while being alone in his small residence. Time has passed a lot since he decided to be a different man, and he is relatively safer than before, but, as a close associate of his reminds him at one point, he has never been forgotten at all due to his remaining notoriety out there.

In addition, Mrs. Haverhill and her grandniece cause more anxiety and uncertainty in Narvel’s life. Mrs. Haverhill actually knows a lot about Narvel, and that is how she has kept him under her power and influence for years. When Maya happens to be threatened by someone from her past, Narvel decides to be a little more active, and Maya surely appreciates that, but then she inadvertently gets Narvel into a big trouble between him and her grandaunt.

Now this sounds like your average pulpy Southern melodrama, but Schrader’s screenplay adamantly sticks to its calm and restrained attitude as before, and we become more aware of how the screenplay feels increasingly problematic in the handling of its three main characters. Narvel initially draws our interest as another interesting case of “the Man in the Room” by Schrader, but the screenplay fails to bring enough human depth and personality, and that is one of the main reasons why its supposedly redemptive finale does not work as well as intended. In case of Maya and her grandaunt, they are even less developed compared to Narvel, and Schrader’s rather superficial treatment of their supposedly complex relationships with Narvel indirectly reminds us of how insensitive he has been to gender issues during last several years. To be frank with you, many of female characters in Schrader’s works are more like story elements at times, and “Master Gardener” presents the worst recent example of that in my humble opinion.

Anyway, Schrader’s main cast members try their best. Joel Edgerton, who has been one of the most dependable actors in our time while steadily working here and there during last 20 years, did a good job of bringing quiet intensity and authenticity to his character as required, and his several diary scenes in the film may make you hope that he will get a chance to work on the audiobook of any good gardening book someday. While mostly stuck in her thankless role, Sigourney Weaver fills her character with enough sense of power and authority at least, and you can instantly see that her character is not someone you can easily mess with. Compared to Edgerton and Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, a non-binary performer who recently appeared in “Black Adam” (2022), is unfortunately under-utilized, but their acting is fairly good on the whole, and we may see more of their talent during next several years.

In conclusion, “Master Gardner” is two or three steps below “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter”, and that is a big disappointment to say the least. To some degree, I appreciate how Schrader keeps going as usual in his own artistic territory even though it has been almost 50 years since he wrote his first screenplay in the early 1970s, but the movie is misguided at best and gender-insensitive at worst, and I can only wish that he will soon compensate for this minor failure.

This entry was posted in Movies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.