Master Gardener


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Master Gardener
"Weaver...hasn’t had a role this rich for years, and is magnificent throughout." | Photo: Vertigo Releasing

The thing about cultivating a garden – not as a personal project attached to a suburban home which will likely be completely transformed by the next owner, but on a grander scale – is that it represents an investment of time in a creative act which will never fully come to fruition during one’s own lifetime. To care for such a garden is to value something beyond oneself, or to value the process of improvement as much as its result.

Who is the master gardener in Paul Schrader’s film? Various possibilities present themselves, though one is tempted to say that it is not a title which belongs to any mere mortal. The central character, Narvel (Joel Edgerton), the one who actually gets his hands in the dirt, is trying to cultivate something new within himself, but he is as much a product of cultivation by his employer, Norma (Sigourney Weaver). Both have roots in something poisonous: the US’ history of chattel slavery and its present day echoes. As Narvel strives, under Norma’s direction, to create something beautiful in a garden which was almost certainly a workplace for enslaved people in the not so distant past, the film seems to be striving to address efforts to cultivate a healthy civilisation in this troubled nation.

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Matters come to a head for Norma and Narvel when the former asks the latter to take on her great niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice. Maya’s mother was a drug addict, she explains, and she’s worried that without proper guidance, the young woman will end up the same way. It’s true that Maya has used drugs, but still, one wonders how much this assessment is influenced by the colour of her skin, her father having been Black. There’s an awkwardness between the two women which makes Maya’s reading of the situation clear. She’s much more at ease with Narvel – but despite early echoes of The Draughtsman’s Contract which make one suspect that they have been intentionally thrown together, this will turn into something that Norma doesn’t like at all.

Despite the focus on Narvel, whose Nazi tattoos point to a past he regrets but who will, in the tradition of Schrader’s moody male protagonists, find himself drawn towards violence once again, it’s Norma who is the film’s most interesting character, Weaver’s performance hinting at a tangle of repressed emotions, obscure motives and moral burdens which weigh upon the film for all that they are not expressed directly. Aristocratic and restrained, she seems constantly to be pained by something which she has no intention of articulating. Narvel is her project, her possession, sometimes sexually, but it doesn’t seem to be love. She struggles to deliver on a family legacy which she seems to recognise as toxic, to find room for herself whilst pushing down learned behaviours which are at odds with the impression she wishes to give.

It is the tension between Norma and Narvel which drives the film. By contrast, when the inevitable happens (inevitable, that is, in male-directed films set up this way) and Maya develops a crush on Narvel, it’s hard to see what interests her about him. She’s young, good looking, increasingly aware of her own potential. She seems ready to leave these two troubled white people in the dust, and although Swindell depicts her desire with an edgy delicacy, the passion which develops between the two of them is hard to buy into. It seems like a convenient excuse to force Narvel into another difficult confrontation with the legacy of his past, whilst giving him somebody to rescue, which Norma, brittle yet formidable, could never be. Maya offers Narvel a redemption which seems too easy, and her sudden dependency upon this older white man seems at odds with what the film has previously been straining towards.

Despite its problems, however, the film has a good deal to offer, at its strongest when it is at its slowest, taking in the details of Narvel’s daily work. Here, the elegance of Schrader’s compositions makes it a pleasure to watch. Then there is Weaver, who hasn’t had a role this rich for years, and is magnificent throughout. Fans of her work should consider it a must-see.

Schrader has suggested that this forms a trilogy of sorts with First Reformed and The Card Counter. There are certainly common threads, but after three films, the limitations of depicting this type of masculine crisis must be becoming apparent. Towards the end, Master Gardener does seem to be trying to do things a little differently. One hopes that it might prepare the ground for something fresh to grow.

Reviewed on: 15 May 2023
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A meticulous horticulturist who is devoted to tending the grounds of a beautiful estate and pandering to his employer, the wealthy dowager, is persuaded to take on her great niece as an apprentice.
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Director: Paul Schrader

Writer: Paul Schrader

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, Eduardo Losan, Esai Morales, Rick Cosnett, Victoria Hill, Amy Le

Year: 2022

Runtime: 107 minutes

Country: US

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