Master Gardener

M, 111 minutes

2 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The dungarees with a pair of pruning shears protruding from the front pocket were to be expected, but not the slicked down, short back-and-sides and the haggard look. We expect a gardener to look like a man of the earth, robust and relaxed, but as a man trying to escape his past in this new film from Paul Schrader, Joel Edgerton looks gaunt and haunted.  Some of the boofy everyman remains, however, with just a hint, a glint of danger.

As screenwriter for Taxi Driver and co-writer for Raging Bull, the veteran writer-director Schrader made telling contributions to two of the films that catapulted Martin Scorsese into the firmament of movie greats. How interesting it is to read online that both he and Scorsese once considered becoming men of God. As they continue to work as filmmakers in the US today, there is plenty to mull over.

Race for one. Most of the action takes place here in the Deep South, on a big estate complete with trees festooned with hanging moss, presided over by a rambling mansion that would have done southern Gothic author William Faulkner proud. Master Gardener was shot in Louisiana.

That boofy everyman, with just a hint of danger

Narvel Roth (Edgerton) embodies the traditional cliché ‘not a hair out of place’, but underneath his gardening gear he is hiding a horrific past of far-right extremism, white supremacism and gun violence. However hard he tries, tending the garden on the Gracewood estate of Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) and joining her in bed on obligatory occasions in her fusty old mansion, he cannot free himself from a past when he was someone else. It has landed him in a witness protection program.

Norma can call him her ‘sweet pea’, but he has only to look at himself in the mirror to remind himself of his swastika, SS and other fascist tattoos. The weird jellyfish-themed wallpaper at Norma’s place might suggest Narvel is trapped in her tentacles, but it is his ‘proud boy’ past that has him in its grip and it hasn’t yet let go.

Narvel keeps a journal recording his daily achievements and long-range ambitions, telling himself that a garden is an expression of hope for the future. Things will always change. The seeds will turn into seedlings, the twigs into branches, the buds into flowers and the winter garden will transform into a vibrant spring. The ideas about rejuvenation that inform the screenplay are fine and there is no reason why they couldn’t work, but the results for the characters on screen are stilted, implausible and occasionally risible.

For everyone except Quintessa Swindell’s Maya Core, grandniece of Norma’s, a beautiful young woman of colour who has recently become orphaned. Her great aunt has brought her in to train as an apprentice. If she demonstrates potential, the entire estate could eventually be hers. The succession plan stalls when Maya and Narvel become lovers, an outcome that sends Norma into a peevish fit.

Let’s not forget that Schrader wrote and directed Richard Gere in American Gigolo. As a predatory, wealthy dowager type, like the Norma Desmond character in Sunset Boulevard, Norma might have represented a real threat to Narvel, but it is the violent past that he is trying to repress that presents the real threat.

A drama that struggles to throw off its awkward tone, and doesn’t do Edgerton justice

Joel Edgerton has made very interesting choices in his career as a filmmaker, as writer and director, in the Australian and international film industry. Last year’s excellent true-crime thriller The Stranger, a local film in which he shared the lead, was a tribute to his versatility, but as Master Gardener struggles to throw off its awkward tone, it doesn’t do him justice.

As part of a witness protection program, Narvel wants to keep his head down among his poppies. camellias, lavender and sage to survive. In his intermittent voiceover, he reveals an in-depth knowledge of gardens and their history and development in either formal, informal or wild manifestations. His whole approach to life matches a philosophy of the garden as an expression of enclosure and control.

Schrader is a filmmaker who always seems to have a lot of his mind, and Master Gardener is no exception. As in The Card Counter, redemption is the ultimate aim. Although Edgerton isn’t afraid to take on difficult and contentious subjects either, it’s a shame their joint effort turns out like this.

First published in the Canberra Times on 9 December 2023.  Jane’s reviews are also published by Rotten Tomatoes