Film Review: Paul Schrader’s Crime Thriller Master Gardener Flourishes with Important Social Commentary

Film Review: Paul Schrader’s Crime Thriller Master Gardener Flourishes with Important Social Commentary
© 2022 MASTER GARDENER US LLC. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Securing redemption through a painful sacrifice, particularly after traveling on a long self-destructive path, is a powerful recurring theme that drives many of the protagonists in Oscar-nominated writer-director Paul Schrader’s films. In his new social crime thriller, Master Gardener, he crafted the titular main character, Narvel Roth, to be a another solitary man tormented by a violent past who seeks regeneration for the choices he has made.

Much like the protagonists in the filmmaker’s last two features – the 2017 psychological drama, First Reformed, and the 2021 crime drama, The Card Counter – Narvel writes in a journals about his obsession – horticulture – that helps him contend with his darkest thoughts throughout Master Gardener. The latter’s protagonist is a former white supremacist who’s striving to repent for his previous sins through his reflections on his past and his newer passion for horticulture.

Master Gardener follows Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) as he takes great care and pride in his work as the longtime head horticulturist at Gracewood Gardens, the historic estate of the demanding, authoritative Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). The autonomous, meticulously run estate has been in the Haverhill family for generations, and Norma trusts no one other than Narvel to continue upholding its long-held traditions.

© 2022 MASTER GARDENER US LLC. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

However, a threat of change is initiated when Norma’s troubled grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), arrives at Gracewood to serve as one of Narvel’s apprentices. As the titular gardener and Maya, who are seemingly different in every way upon initial glance, get to know each other, their unexpected connection sets off a chain reaction of events. As a result, the two begin to help each other come to terms with their shocking pasts, much to Norma’s growing ire.

Schrader’s latest three movies, which didn’t initially begin as a thematic trilogy, now powerfully tie together as a man in a room series; their male protagonists are finally accepting the fact that he can no longer hide from his demons.

Throughout Master Gardener, Narvel proves to be the essential example of a troubled main character in a Schrader movie. The protagonist’s background and current journey captures the racial tensions of contemporary America through Narvel’s internal struggles and growing connection with Maya.

The film achieves that by not instantly revealing the fact that the protagonist is living in the Witness Protection Program. He was granted the arrangement in return for cooperating with the police after his tenure working as a gun-for-hire for a white supremacist group.

Instead, Edgerton captivatingly brings Narvel’s struggles to life on screen by initially showcasing how the protagonist finds solace in his daily duties by carefully tending the grounds of Gracewood Garden. Through that mundane routine, the actor was able to highlight his character’s journey to penance and salvation.

Narvel deserves bearing the consequences of his heinous crimes he committed in his previous occupation. But Edgerton infuses his character with the harrowing knowledge that he’ll never be morally free from the sins of his past, which encourages him to help the people who are currently in his life, particularly Maya.

This final chapter in Schrader’s man in the room trilogy reinforcing the idea that the only hope and redemption these existential antiheroes have is to be found in love. Narvel is in his late 40s, while Maya is in her mid-20s, and Norma, who expresses a personal interest in her gardener is decades older than them both.

© 2022 MASTER GARDENER US LLC. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The characters’ age gaps help amplify the unease and tension between their awkward personal and professional relationships. The trio’s unease with each other’s age, as well as their gender and race and how they influence their views and actions create explosive results between them throughout the narrative.

On Master Gardener, Schrader reunited with many of his key crew members from First Reformed and The Card Counter. Production Designer Ashley Fenton, who worked on the latter film, reunited with Schrader for the upcoming movie, which was shot on location in n the St. Francisville area of Louisiana.

The great house where Mrs. Haverhill lives and Narvel works in Master Gardener, Gracewood, is a mixture of two former plantation houses, Greenwood, and Rosedown. Fenton infuses the property surrounding Gracewood, which serves as the beautifully manicured setting for the majority of the thriller’s story, with dazzling abundance of flowers. Meanwhile, the lavish mansion is filled with extravagant furniture that supports the serene facade of Mrs. Haverhill lives and Narvel’s seemingly perfect life together.

Master Gardener is a potent tale of Narvel’s emotional tormented by his past as a white supremacist gun-for-hire. The drama serves as the emotionally satisfying culmination of Schrader’s reflective, insightful man in a room trilogy of narratives that began with First Reformed and then continued with The Card Counter. With the help of Edgerton’s captivating performance and Fenton’s visually stunning production design, Schrader’s latest feature is a bold contemplation into a lonely male protagonist’s journey to finally solve his existential crisis.

Grade: B+

Magnolia Pictures will release Master Gardener in theaters this Friday, May 19, 2023.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

Here’s the trailer of the film.

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