Master Gardener

Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

Master Gardener
dir-scr Paul Schrader
prd Amanda Crittenden, David Gonzales, Scott LaStaiti
with Joel Edgerton, Quintessa Swindell, Sigourney Weaver, Esai Morales, Victoria Hill, Amy Le, Eduardo Losan, Jared Bankens, Rick Cosnett, DJames Jones, Erika Ashley, Cade Burk
release US Oct.22 nyff
22/US 1h47

swindell weaver morales
venice film fest

Is it streaming?

esgerton and swindell
With his usual provocations about accepted morality, Paul Schrader heads to the Deep South for an intriguing drama that plays with big ideas while remaining tantalisingly out of reach. Characters are complex and full of their own private secrets, which creates a sense of mystery as the plot dabbles with the elements of a thriller. But this leaves the film feeling eerily incomplete, simply because the people remain so opaque.
On a Southern plantation with a lavish public garden, spinster owner Norma (Weaver) brings her grandniece Maya (Swindell) to learn the trade from her top gardener Narvel (Edgerton). Norma's relationships are strained at best, and she struggles to connect with the 20-something Maya, who's trying to escape her ex (Bankens), a local drug dealer. But Narvel has an even more troubled past in a right-wing militia, now living in witness protection overseen by US Marshal Neruda (Morales). And while he has an unconventional relationship with Norma, he finds Maya to be a kindred spirit.
As the plot moves in a steady, gentle pace, secrets emerge in dialog and flashbacks. But it's always a fragment, never quite painting the full picture. Each new glimpse into someones past comes with further revelations that shift their interaction. Themes are enormous, from economic privilege and the legacy of the slave trade to more personal thoughts of redemption and renewal, all filtered through Garden of Eden metaphors and Edgerton's horticultural voiceover. But without the full story, it's difficult to engage with what happens.

Edgerton shines in a nuanced role. Narvel is openly kind, but his deep thinking masks darker instincts honed through years of violence. He is attracted to Norma and Maya for distinct reasons, all of which are rather icky. But Swindell gives Maya a fiercely focussed persona, standing up for herself regardless of who challenges her and rejecting help until she has no choice. Weaver, meanwhile, is fabulous in a smaller scene-chewing role. When her temper snaps, we leap to attention.

This is a film that naggingly never quite opens itself to the viewer. Schrader keeps the sexual encounters in the murky twilight, and they're rather problematic in the way they involve insidiously low-key power plays. More interesting are the various explorations of the relationships these characters have with their troubled pasts. All of them are wounded, and none are dealing with these things in particularly healthy ways. But maybe there's hope for healing if they can figure out a way to work together.

cert 15 themes, language, violence, sexuality 3.Sep.22 vff

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© 2022 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall