“Master Gardener” cultivates a thorny story of atonement

Paul Schrader’s latest drama, and follow-up to “The Card Counter,” is now playing at AMC Fitchburg through May 30.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) and Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) have a discussion in a garden, while a dog sits on the ground to their right.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) and Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) have a discussion in a garden, while a dog sits on the ground to their right.

Paul Schrader’s latest drama, and follow-up to The Card Counter, is now playing at AMC Fitchburg through May 30.

Intentional growth of both the plant and human variety is the narrative thrust of Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener (2023). The psychological drama closes out a thematic trilogy that began in 2017 with First Reformed—a film that brought the auteur back into the critical spotlight after years of tepid responses from critics and financiers, and continued with The Card Counter in 2021.

Here, Schrader’s variation on the “man in a room” trope is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), the master gardener of the title, and someone who’s outgrown a violent past that is glimpsed in flashbacks over the course of the film. His cultivated calmness is in service to Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), the owner of the New Orleans botanical plantation, Gracewood Gardens, where Narval works.

While he is reserved and respectfully stiff, Narvel clearly relishes the opportunity to take control of the creation of something beautiful, and always wears long sleeves to cover up the sordid remnants of the past on his body—tattoos from his days in a white supremacist gang. Like many Schrader protagonists before him, he’s a journaler (a device Schrader has borrowed from Robert Bresson since 1976’s Taxi Driver); but, when the audience meets him, he’s jotting down his thoughts on the history of horticulture rather than working through a long, dark night of the soul. Narvel even reaches a point where he acknowledges that he may have outgrown the need for a journal (and amusingly enough, picks up a cell phone immediately after this revelation). 


Into the closed world of the garden comes Norma’s grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a young woman who has fallen in with what her grand-aunt deems the “wrong crowd” (one being a villainous guy who looks like Orin from Parks & Recreation in a drug rug). Maya is hired at the garden in the hopes she’ll come to walk a more stable path. Norma observes Maya at a distance through Narvel’s reports, not quite knowing how to fit this Black woman, a familial tie, into a southern estate with a history of slavery that is never overtly acknowledged. Narval’s interest in Maya eventually becomes less than professional; Norma accuses him of thinking with his dick, and they are both cast out of the garden.

As writer and director, Schrader once again uses a much-debated social issue as a jumping-off point to explore how a flawed individual can achieve grace, act in a just manner in a flawed society, and atone for past sins. This particular entry is a little weaker than the others in the trilogy, but part of the pleasure in following Schrader is observing how he repeats himself, and watching his perennial ideas flower each time around.

Schrader concludes that a dick is ultimately a life-giving tool, and that Narvel following his sexual impulses can be creative when he follows through with the same rigor he brings to gardening, which then leads him to sincere connection and personal growth. While some viewers may see the characterization of Narvel as a little irresponsible, an ex-Nazi represented during a time when the ideology is more publicly espoused than at any time in recent memory, that’s precisely the point. Schrader is earnest about the transformative power of choosing love, however dorky, difficult, and messy it all may be.

May 20: This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Narvel’s name.

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