Just like the best of gardens, it takes a lot of work to revive the soul.
Written and directed by Paul Schrader, The Master Gardener tells the story of Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), the quiet but duteous horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens. Gracewood is the property of Nora Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy woman who demands perfection of her grounds and staff. For Narvel, however, his servitude to Nora is an opportunity for him to begin his life again so he remains both grateful and hardworking. But things change when Nora demands that Narvel take on her troubled great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as his new student. Although Maya works hard, her inclusion on the team brings new challenges and forces Narvel to face his own dark secrets.
In Gardener, Schrader continues to develop his own unique style of contemplative character dramas. In his recent ‘renaissance’ as a filmmaker, Schrader has returned to quieter stories that delve deeply into the frailties of humanity. (In other words, don’t look for him to direct the next Fast & Furious sequel…) Like his other projects, Gardener moves along at a slow burn but, when it unleashes, it does so with force. This is a story where the viewer is meant to feel the weight of the burden that Narvel experiences privately every day.
In order to bring this to life onscreen, Edgerton’s performance remains heavy and reserved, as though each breath is an undeserved gift. However, when his character is allowed to unleash his inner rage, Edgerton becomes a different person entirely. Interestingly, Edgerton’s performance meshes well when held up against Swindell’s darker innocence as the two characters find solace when together onscreen.
However, what ultimately makes Schrader so fascinating as an artist is the way that he weaves his own unique brand of humanism with religious themes. As Narvel works tirelessly to keep Nora’s gardens pristine, he curates his very own Garden of Eden. Leading a team of staff who are looking for a place to belong, Narvel is a man too who has begun a new life amidst the trees. Keeping his past hidden, he lives a life of penance, serving dutifully in an effort to show that he is a different man. As a result, for him, this is a place where flowers bloom at their best and broken people find redemption. (After all, there’s a reason that the place is called Gracewood.)
However, when a misunderstanding leads to their expulsion from the Garden, Narvel and Maya must seek their own form of redemption. Unlike the lush greens of the gardens, the outside world is harsh and cold. Yet, despite the harsh conditions, the two begin to face their demons. Together, they are forced to confront their emotional scars (or, in Narvel’s case, his literal ones) and hope that a new path can be found together.
Without giving away any spoilers, it’s this relationship between Narvel and Maya that becomes essential to the film’s core. As they open the floodgates with their personal issues, Gardener becomes an intriguing journey into modern redemption. In a world that has been seeking answers in the wake of Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and other sociological wake up calls, this film wants to explore what it means to find forgiveness and more forward. Schrader has always been most comfortable sitting in the grey and, with this film, he is looking for ways to find hope in the modern era. Is forgiveness possible at a time when we must account for our sins? Can people truly change or are we always infected by the scars of our past? In Master Gardener, Schrader uses his characters to lean into these deeply spiritual questions with a recognition of modern sensibilities.
Admittedly, due to its pacing and, at time, strange narrative choices, The Master Gardener will likely not be for everyone. Unlike most dramatic stories, Schrader’s films are often puzzles that require effort to unlock and this film is no different. However, for those who are willing to invest the time, this Garden blooms beautifully in its own way.
The Master Gardener is available in theatres on Friday, May 19th, 2023.