14 June 2024

Film Review – Master Gardener (2022)

Paul Schrader hasn’t said as much, but his latest film as director/writer has all the trappings of a loose trilogy. Preceded by the excellent First Reformed (2017) and the sombre The Card Counter (2021), Master Gardener is the culmination of a trio of reflective stories, with the spotlight on solitary men steeped in guilt trying to balance their pasts with their current lives and uncertain futures. What sets this third instalment apart from the other is a word that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with the man who made his name by writing Taxi Driver. Romance.

“Gardening is a belief in the future,” head gardener Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) writes in his journal, immediately hinting that this intensely private man, who clearly has a past, has found comfort in his profession and hasn’t abandoned hope for the future. He’s in charge of a beautiful, historic garden owned by the wealthy Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) who, with her money and heritage, is used to ruling the lives of everybody around her. Out of the blue, she tells Roth she’s given her grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) a job at the garden to keep her out of trouble and he’ll be her supervisor.

What appears to be an act of generosity is more about control: indeed, there is much about the film which is concealed beneath the calm precision of the garden and Schrader takes his time in unfolding the individual stories – Roth’s inescapable past, Maya’s personal problems – so that the film gradually moves into thriller territory. But that unfamiliar romantic tone is always there, from its widest sense, with Roth ruminating on the romance of people’s connection to the land, to something more intimate as his relationship with Maya develops into something that could give them both the redemption they both need and seek.

The three central characters all have their secrets – some we discover, some never emerge – and watching them open up on screen in an almost botanical style is part of the film’s fascination. The other is compelling performances from Edgerton and Weaver, two equally solitary people whose connection is prickly and uncomfortable, despite a certain longevity. Edgerton is superb, his immaculate hair cut and clothes concealing the physical manifestation of his turbulent past but who has developed a real passion for the plants and the earth which are now the focus of his life. His boss, as played by Weaver, is all about power so when she finds herself in danger of being replaced and losing her control, her anger is bitter and savage. The weak point, however, is in Swindell, who never really convinces in her portrayal of a young woman whose difficult past has translated into a damaged present.

While it doesn’t have the same tension as The Card Counter, Master Gardener shows us a new side to Schrader, an unexpectedly softer one, even if his usual hard-nosed attitude is still very much on show. Ultimately, that romance is coupled with a more optimistic tone, advocating that people can change given the chance to thrive and grow. The result is less of a thriller and more of a character study, one which is powerfully reinforced by its two lead actors.

★★★★

Drama | Cinemas, 26 May 2023 | Vertigo Releasing | Cert: 15 | Dir: Paul Schrader | Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, Esai Morales, Victoria Hill, Eduardo Losan.


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