Master Gardener (2023)

Director: Paul Schrader

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Certification: 15

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, Esai Morales, Eduardo Losan, Victoria Hill, Jared Bankens

The latest feature from prolific screenwriter/director Paul Schrader, viewers are introduced to meticulous horticulturist Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who tends to the grounds of Gracewood Gardens. He's as devoted to looking after the estate as he is pandering to his employer, wealthy dowager Mrs. Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), which includes a transactional sexual relationship. His disciplined life is rocked by Norma's demands to take on her troubled great-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as a new apprentice. The seemingly straightforward premise is mirrored in the opening moments, pairing the sight of flowers in bloom with Devonté Hynes' otherworldly score, conveying something sinister lurking beneath a deceptively simple thing.

It's clear that Schrader is working from a template, as his troubled protagonist writes about inner struggles within a journal, only for their carefully constructed life to be disturbed by a young outsider who brings the potential for violence and redemption. Central to that is an exceptional Edgerton, capturing the lead's regrets over a past he tries burying while resigned to living in his own self-exile. He found a release in gardening and discovered a purpose which instils hope for the future, although the question lingers regarding if he accepts such changes within himself.

Gardening reflects Narvel's hopes for himself, calling it a belief in the future and that change will come in due time. He tries escaping past horrors which are shown in flashbacks, highlighting a life which can never be returned to, although the road taken for such a man to change feels noticeably absent. A confrontational approach would have been more effective than the soft approach taken, relying on Edgerton's performance to convey such regrets, and using Norma's prejudices to make him look better by comparison.

The subtext of how gardening mirror's Narvel's inner struggles are visualized in a clumsy sequence, as an imagined car journey drives down a road surrounded by blossoming nature. While it thematically fits to show the potential for happiness found in Maya, the new addition who becomes Narvel's salvation, it's a clunky moment which takes one out of the film. There's an effective relationship between the pair, yet the turn towards romantic feelings feels forced.

While Maya's great-aunt refuses to wade through their mucky past, Narvel tries helping with the drug-dealer trouble which has plagued his apprentice. As both endure such damage, the pair reflect plants in how seemingly irreparable experiences can be overcome by allowing time for healing. Even amidst a trash heap, the possibility remains for something to grow anew and light to be found at the end of the tunnel.

Master Gardener is available in UK Cinemas from 26th May