MASTER GARDENER (2023) – More style over substance in this arthouse tale of second chance


Rating: ⭐⭐ 1/2

When I read about this new movie from Paul Schrader I was immediately triggered to watch this. Paul Schrader is afterall the man who was screenwriter for the classic Robert de Niro movies Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and more recently taking on the roles of both director and writer for First Reformed and The Card Counter. His films have all been not only well written but offered unique stories told through strong performances and his own directorial style. Master Gardener has many of Paul Schrader’s trademarks like a protagonist who is basically a loner, isolated, and with a dark secret, within a tale that is morally layered with themes of obsession, guilt, and ultimately redemption. However, I have to admit that I was underwhelmed by the way the story unfolded this time and unconvinced by the characters’ motivations and behaviours.

Joel Edgerton (Uncle Owen in the Star Wars movies and Kenobi TV series) plays the main character Narvel, who has a dark history that he is hiding from through his new life as a devoted gardener. Sigourney Weaver has some meaty scenes as the wealthy and mysterious Norma Haverhill, owner of the mansion and gardens Narvel works in. Finally, there is Quintessa Swindell as Maya the grandniece to Norma who has been summoned to be an apprentice to Narvel. Some strange relationship unfolds through these three characters, and it is a struggle to identify with the often-conflicted relationships between them. For example, the tension between Norma and Maya is never really satisfyingly explained. We are given some insights through flashbacks and words or sentences in the dialouge but these could not sufficiently explain the actions of the main characters. And the attraction between Maya and Narvel felt unconvincing and unnatural. It has a very different approach in displaying love and erotism. Overall, the writing was top notched as the dialogue is never boring. This is complimented well by the excellent performances of our three main stars. Many scenes comes across strongly on their own but they did not necessarily gel well together.

Paul Schrader applied a rather unique directorial style, by keeping his camera predominantly at a distance and rarely giving us closeups of the performers. This gives the viewer an additional dimension in the storytelling while providing deeper sense of the sets and surroundings, particularly the beauty of the garden grounds. The style is akin to us watching the scenes in a play. Kept at a distance with the body language playing as much a role as the dialouge. Master Gardener pulls off as an interesting watch, thanks to the direction style, performances, and the visuals. The beautiful time-lapse shots of flowers blossoming on the opening credits is an early visual highlight to the movie.

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