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Master Gardener

Master Gardener Bears its Share of Redemption

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Master Gardener is the third film in Paul Schrader’s trilogy that involves themes such as self-redemption and finding love in the midst of tragedy. The films also have a pattern of men that journal their thoughts and grapple with their pasts. The previous movies that preceded that film are First Reformed and The Card Counter. Master Gardener features actors such as Joel Edgerton (Narvel Roth) and Sigourney Weaver (Norma Haverhill).

The film introduces an experienced horticulturist named Narvel Roth that maintains the gardens of the Gracewood Garden estate that is owned by a wealthy widow named Norma Haverhill. Narvel also lives on the property in a cabin that is next to Norma’s house. Norma requests that Narvel meet with her to discuss her recently orphaned grand-niece Maya Core (Quintessa Swindell) that struggles with substance abuse. She requests that he take her under his guidance as a gardening apprentice so that eventually Maya can take over the gardens. 

Unbeknownst to the other gardeners, Narvel is a former white supremacist with a chilling and violent past. He is under witness protection and is haunted by the nightmares along with murderous flashbacks. Narvel hides his Proud Boy and neo-Nazi tattoos under his long sleeves in the heat of summer. He uses gardening and journaling as coping mechanisms in order to redeem himself for the wrongs he had caused in his past. Norma is aware of Narvel’s history and also hopes to reform her grand-niece through gardening.

Maya’s relationship with her grand-aunt Norma is strained since they come from two different worlds. Maya’s parents were both deceased and struggled with substance abuse. Not much is known about Norma other than she is a wealthy dowager that holds lavish fundraising galas at her estate and that she was once featured in The Rifleman as a child. Despite the conflicts Maya has with Norma, Narvel and Maya quickly grow close. Maya confides in him about how she feels about her great-aunt and how they do not see eye-to-eye.

One day Maya comes to the gardens injured and the concerned gardeners bring this to Narvel’s attention. They give her medical care and Maya opens up to Narvel by sharing that her dealer R.G. beat her up. Narvel worries for her safety and contacts his witness protection case manager about the incident. His case manager intimidates R.G. and his friend Sissy as a warning to leave Maya alone. Norma allows Maya to stay on the estate in a separate cabin until it is safe for her to return home. Tensions build between Norma and Narvel when she discovers that Maya tried seducing him. 

Norma angrily orders both of them to pack their things and leave Gracewood. Narvel offers to take Maya along with him as long as she sobers up and refrains from using drugs. The two begin motel hopping and Maya eventually learns about his past. She becomes estranged and upset but soon accepts Narvel for who he is.

One thing that I will comment is that I definitely appreciated the aesthetics of the Gracewood Garden estate. Seeing the variety of flowers and country foliage is what kept my interest throughout the film. It was almost like seeing a southern tale from a Nicholas Sparks novel. The set was filmed in St. Francisville, Louisiana and is definitely a place I would love to visit. I also found Norvell’s knowledge about horticulture and gardens very educational.

After watching the movie trailers, I expected more suspense and complexity from the plot. In some scenes the acting and script between Maya and Narvel were definitely awkward. I will not go into deep detail as to not spoil the movie, but the acting just seemed very disconnected and their relationship dynamic seemed rushed. The relationship between the characters was definitely too on the nose and left very little to the imagination. The love interests were presented far too soon in the film. I have watched two out of the three movies in Schrader’s trilogy and it seems that the screenwriter does not shy away from the awkwardness that is presented on screen. Perhaps the message is that in real life or films not everything will have candles and romantic rose trails.


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