Paul Schrader’s latest film, Master Gardener, confounded me. The plot revolves around Narvel, a straight-laced, committed gardener with an oddly slicked-back haircut and a penchant for journaling. When the mistress of the grounds he cares for asks for a personal favor, he is quick to relent. The request requires him to take her estranged grandniece as an apprentice to ensure the gardens’ legacy and to fill a sense of familial responsibility. Once Maya arrives, so too does trouble from her past.
Here is where we slowly get insight into Narvel’s background. Through various flashbacks, meetings with a witness protection officer, and some large-scale tattoos, things get complicated when attraction grows between teacher and student.
Sounds relatively straightforward in the way I’ve described it. In reality, Master Gardener is a jumbled mess. Sigourney Weaver plays Mrs. Haverhill, a role I can only assume is meant to be an old-school Southern grandam. Instead, she is a racist elite taking advantage of Narvel, throwing a hissy fit when something doesn’t go her way. Weaver is a legend. Somehow this performance is horrendous. It’s an overblown theatrical version of a person. It’s unlikely this was her own doing.
Joel Edgerton plays Narvel with an understated aura. His chemistry with co-star Quintessa Swindell feels bizarre, not to mention the egregious age difference. That has everything to do with Schrader’s script. I’m sure the film is supposed to be a redemption story. I’m sure of it. But the way it goes about that narrative feels half-baked.
While watching the film in a room full of NYFF60 critics and patrons, the groans were audible. The laughs at the absurdity were embarrassing. No one seemed to understand what Schrader was thinking other than an out-of-touch attempt at tackling socially relevant themes in a tacky manner. The editing doesn’t do the film any favors, either.
The best aspect of Master Gardener is the grounded performance from Quintessa Swindell. Her raw openness reads as natural as can be. Brave to her for committing to dialogue that was all over the place. No doubt she’s a star.
In the end, Master Gardener had me shaking my head. Bury this one in the ground.
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