Review: The Master Gardener | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, October 4th, 2023  

The Master Gardener

Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Paul Schrader

May 19, 2023 Web Exclusive
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There’s nothing flowery about Joel Edgerton’s Narvel Roth in Master Gardener. Edgerton sternly portrays a horticulturist protagonist in the new drama from writer-director Paul Schrader— best known for penning the Taxi Driver screenplay, now enjoying a resurgence after helming The Card Counter and First Reformed. Indeed, Schrader and Australian critical darling Edgerton (Zero Dark Thirty, Black Mass) are in lockstep, delivering an undercurrent of menace as Roth quietly but rigidly instructs his staff to prune delicate petals and tend to flower beds.

It certainly is serious business, we viewers learn, once property owner Mrs. Haverhill (a genteel but clearly evil Sigourney Weaver) sashays onscreen. She and Edgerton engage at first in tersely professional, yet undeniably sparky, exchanges about the huge cash prizes the flowers on her land garner, as her dresses radiate in saturated colors while he makes sure to keep his muck caked boots and gloves on her fancy homestead’s porch rather than indoors.

Schrader’s writing and shooting of those scenes is both understated and eerie. The tension soon spills over upon the arrival of Haverhill’s niece Maya (relative newcomer Quintessa Swindell, who has appeared on HBO’s Euphoria). Maya’s efforts to overcome addiction and start anew by literally rolling up her sleeves at her aunt’s profitable gardens gently charms the stone faced Roth, much to Haverhill’s simmering fury. Alien and Avatar legend Weaver hasn’t been this good in years, stealing scene after scene by patronizing her “mixed blood” niece, and eventually admonishing Roth.

But it’s Swindell who delivers The Master Gardener’s finest performance as a young black addict who, in one especially physical scene, confronts Roth upon learning about his past. It turns out his is surprisingly far more sordid than hers.

These attributes help offset some of The Master Gardener’s flaws. Many viewers have called its romantic ending trite. They have a point, though a hastily plotted and shot confrontation between Roth and Maya’s enablers is the movie’s true letdown. All that makes this film anticlimactic and a mere solid entry in the Schrader canon. But our expectations for that are of course unfairly high considering his feats with First Reformed and especially Taxi Driver.

Still, The Master Gardener is more than worth watching thanks to its engrossingly subdued plot and goosebump inducing performances. The fact that would-be-star Swindell breaks through is a testament to her talent, considering Weaver’s career high turn and Edgerton’s singularly simmering Roth. He’s the perfectly quirky star to root this film in— seeming to not so much plant flowers throughout The Master Gardener as dig, and even excise, graves and wounds.

Author rating: 7/10

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