Review of Paul Schrader’s Intentionally Awkward ‘Master Gardener’
The word of the day is “awkward.” Every character, every situation, every moment, and every conversation in this film can be described as awkward. An attempt will be made to not overuse that adjective here, but yours truly offers no guarantees.
Paul Schrader has had a long and impressive career as both a writer and director. His early successes include screenplays for Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), Raging Bull (1980), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), as well as directing American Gigolo (1980) and Affliction (1997). The past few years have been a bit of a resurgence for Schrader with the excellent First Reformed (2018) and The Card Counter (2021).
In Master Gardener, Schrader gives us Narvel Roth, an expert horticulturalist played by Joel Edgerton. Narvel is responsible for the massive gardens on the estate of wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Narvel’s daily rituals are carried forth with his meticulous approach, including daily journaling in his sparse living quarters located on the grounds of the estate. As the narrator, Narvel tells us, “a change will come in its due time,” and though he’s speaking of the garden, we understand the words also apply to him. Soon enough, we learn that this current lifestyle represents a significant change from his past, and it’s clear another is brewing.
The relationship between Narvel and Ms. Haverhill is quite unorthodox, and yes, awkward (she has nicknamed him ‘Sweet Pea’). She is filled with entitlement and thrives on her power over others, not hesitating to use Narvel for more than his gardening skills. In fact, his past likely provides quite an enticement for her.
Ms. Haverhill soon charges Narvel with taking her estranged and off-track great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, Black Adam, 2022) under his wing and teaching her the profession of gardening. This creates the second and third of the three relationships at play in the film. Narvel and Maya hit it off, as her intelligence and work ethic win him over. However, things aren’t as smooth between Maya and Ms. Haverhill. Their first chat, though long delayed, epitomizes the awkwardness prevalent throughout the film.
Adding complexity to the story is Maya’s personal life which brings a couple of drug dealers to the forefront. It’s this development that uncovers the past Narvel has worked so hard to cover up. After a meeting with his Witness Protection contact (Esai Morales), Narvel begins his process of ‘saving’ Maya, a clear attempt at redemption from his past life, and this is where her being bi-racial is a significant plot point.
The first two acts offer an unconventional form of entertainment. Edgerton nails the Narvel role with his Steven Wright delivery, slicked-back hair, Sling Blade wardrobe, and fastidious procession through the day. Even his posture and stride change along with his character’s shifting outlook. The three relationships between the tormented characters weave quite the web, and as secrets are exposed, the dynamics of these relationships change as well.
Schrader includes a few cringy lines of dialogue (perhaps by design?), and the drug dealers seem purposefully cartoonish, rather than intimidating or menacing. There are call-backs to earlier Schrader works, as it seems many of his characters over the years have battled personal demons, yet this one does offer a glimmer of optimism, which could be considered a step forward…even if it’s a bit awkward.