Film Review: Master Gardener | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, April 17th, 2024  

Master Gardener

Studio: HanWay Films
Director: Paul Schrader

Apr 20, 2023 Web Exclusive
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Ever since his screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver brought him to international attention 47 years ago, writer/director Paul Schrader has specialized in crafting tales of lone male outsiders leading separate existences from established society. Whether it’s John LeTour (Willem Dafoe), the drug dealer considering a new way of life in Light Sleeper (1991), or Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), the First Lady’s gay escort who cannot fully be a part of either civilian life or Washington’s inner circles in The Walker (2006), antiheroes who cannot and/or will not integrate into ‘everyday life’ are Schrader’s métier.

Schrader continues this dramatic tradition with his latest film, Master Gardener, the tale of Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), chief gardener to Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy dowager living on a colonial estate in an unspecified Middle American location. When Haverhill instructs Roth to take on her semi-estranged great-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice, Roth and Maya form an unexpected bond, possibly as a result of their mutual dependence on Haverhill. However, both Roth and his new charge are harboring secrets from their pasts that threaten to disrupt the precarious equilibrium he has worked hard to maintain.

Whilst, on a formal level, Master Gardener may be unexciting, featuring little in the way of visual experimentation aside from some brief, rapidly edited flashback sequences, the film’s narrative is one of Schrader’s strongest for years. Conceived of as the closing installment of a loosely linked trilogy that began with First Reformed (2017) and continued with The Card Counter (2021), the film boasts, in Roth, a far stronger potential object of audience identification than either of the preceding films offered. Edgerton delivers one of his best performances in years as the deeply flawed protagonist, a man whose background is steeped in hatred but whose new life has gradually and belatedly instilled in him a capacity for love and warmth. Even Weaver manages to imbue her fundamentally cold character with some humane elements.

Relative newcomer Swindell turns in a solid performance, believably conveying how Maya convinces Roth to help even though doing so involves him risking his semi-comfortable, self-involved existence. Esai Morales also does good work as Neruda, a figure from Roth’s past to whom he reluctantly turns for assistance. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography, though unobtrusive, captures the film’s geographically ambiguous setting well, helping to establish and maintain a sense of time and place. Whilst Master Gardener is unlikely to ultimately be ranked among Schrader’s best works, it may well qualify as a late-career high watermark. If nothing else, it serves as evidence that, at 76, he is a filmmaker who has lost none of his capacity for creating stimulating stories about interesting characters.

Author rating: 8/10

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