Review: While Master Gardener still plays comically similar to his previous few movies, Paul Schrader finds enough new ideas to still make his newest film feel fresh. Topped by a career-best performance by Joel Edgerton, the movie is a worthwhile treat for longtime fans of the director.
Legendary director and screenwriter Paul Schrader continues to do his own thing and work at his own pace. A veteran of the scene now going on fifty years, Schrader’s made tackling the male psyche his bread and butter – a personal interest that he seems determined to get to the center of with each film. As of late, he’s worked through men in crisis and at turning points midway through their lives, and with Master Gardener, he’s working at the same high clip that he’s been at for years.
For someone so deeply interested in the same narrative ideas and tonal reflections, it’s nice to see Paul Schrader continuously able to peel back new layers with each effort. That’s not to say that Master Gardener feels completely unlike First Reformed and The Card Counter, but you’re able to watch this without feeling like you’re being force fed the same themes of broken men trying to find their way back to society.
Perhaps this is in large part due to the fact that Master Gardener is significantly more colorful and hopeful than the previous two films. Joel Edgerton infuses his character, Narvel, with an unrelenting sense that he’ll be able to break free from the demons that are following him from his past. It’s a nice upbeat shift from the doomed feelings you get watching Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac being consumed by the forces bearing down on them.
And yet Master Gardener still fits snuggly into this trilogy that Paul Schrader has obviously built through these three film releases. It’s blunt and comical how much he’s willing to parody himself – starting with the first shot of the entire movie being Edgerton endlessly jotting down notes in his journal. If I had saw this in a theater, there’s no way I would’ve been able to stop myself from bursting out laughing.
It’s fascinating to me that Schrader – for all of the films that he’s made about men going to violent lengths to rectify what they see as issues in their own worlds – is the one to best display innate beauty so far this year. Master Gardener is remarkably stunning and gorgeous to look at. The gardens serve as a location to cleanse the harsher narrative at play, and they’re able to inject strong undertones of a calming presence throughout.
It’s also a significantly less violent movie than First Reformed or The Card Counter. Each of those films have the occasional jarring sequence or frame that reminds you how unrelenting the world can be, even for those desperate to escape it. First Reformed uses self-inflicted violence as a way for its characters to repent for their sins or feel like they’re being punished for negative actions, while The Card Counter uses violence to abolish and rectify the monsters that lurk throughout the world.
Aside from a few broken kneecaps and a powerful monologue from Edgerton about a pair of pruning shears, Master Gardener works really hard to avoid any on-screen danger – even with the threat of it looming around every corner. Edgerton is punished for past behavior by being taken away from his family years before the beginning sequences in the film. The relationships and community that Edgerton’s character has built in the years since serves as the emotional turbulence and violence that the film needs.
It’s still the most reserved Schrader has been in the three films, but certainly not the most obsolete or out of touch. Narvel’s past of sporting the type of behavior and clothing akin to the Proud Boys feels as prescient as ever. The movie navigates whether people like Narvel can ever really change and be accepted back into society at large – and even if they can live with themselves when they escape that path of life. It’s certainly the most nuanced and reflective version of this narrative that I’ve seen in a while, and maybe even ever.
Reviews for Movies like Master Gardener
The rest of the cast is stunning as Paul Schrader’s sense of casting certain actors and actresses continues to do his films justice. Sigourney Weaver plays the wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill, the owner of the beautiful estate that Narvel serves as the horticulturalist of. She carries the gravitas and screen presence the role needs as she captures the frame whenever she has a major scene. The plot and dramatic elements largely lean on a few decisions that she makes abut halfway through the movie.
The other supporting role is played by Quintessa Swindell, who is Mrs. Haverhill’s grandniece Maya, and moves to the estate when her mother passes. She strikes up a flirtatious relationship with Narvel, and that’s what gets the story rolling in the second act. Her performance is fragile as she switches between innocent, mysterious, and troubled as her personal life unfolds throughout, as well as how she has to reconcile with Narvel’s past mistakes.
Paul Schrader balances the screentime of these three characters quite well. It takes a shift in the second half as the movie moves away from the estate, but it never fails to peel back more and more layers as Narvel’s past is revealed to Maya. Edgerton and Swindell’s relationship never feels inauthentic or rigid – instead blossoming into a dynamic and intense partnership with a sweet closing moment.
Overall, Paul Schrader crafts Master Gardener as the perfect potential closer for this intertwined trio of films. It leaves you feeling hopeful for humanity, a nice pivot from the gut punches he lands toward the end of his previous two. It works largely on a dense and tight script, some brilliant performances throughout, and scenic locations that match the colorful and lively tone.
Where to watch Master Gardener: VOD
Master Gardener Cast and Credits
Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth
Sigourney Weaver as Norma Haverhill
Quintessa Swindell as Maya
Esai Morales as Oscar Neruda
Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Cinematography: Alexander Dynan
Editor: Ben Rodriguez Jr.
Composer: Devonte Hynes
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Master Gardener movie on IMDb