Complicated, Messy, Tender, and Beautiful
It’s difficult to describe Master Gardener in a way that honors its prominence without making it sound overdone and insincere. It is truly one of those rare films that resemble a pearl inside an oyster. A story in which the plot is carried out through every small but never insignificant detail. Master Gardener is just as much the kind of film to sneak up on you when you're not looking and tackle you to the ground. Like last year's Best Picture nominee Women Talking, Master Gardener searches for tenderness in the most barbaric of places, where so much is said simply by way of facial close-ups or uncomfortable body language. This is an “on the surface” story dealing with white supremacy and the legacies the past leave us but it is executed in a way that drives viewers in a direction they don’t expect without overreaching and distracting plot devices for the sake of spreading a universal message. Writer/Director Paul Schrader observantly dissects the specific roots of each character’s loneliness and it’s that kind of dedication that makes Master Gardener so profound. This is a truly surprisingly stunning film, the best I’ve seen so far this year.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is the gentle-mannered horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, a Louisiana estate owned by the wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) with whom Roth occasionally has sexual relations with. Unbeknownst to his team of gardeners, Roth is a former white supremacist in witness protection, having ratted out his former associates after carrying out a hit on a black preacher witnessed by the victim's wife and daughter. Traumatized and remorseful of his upbringing, he seeks comfort in ritualistic journaling and the specific beauties found in gardening. He maintains the hateful supremacist tattoos on his body that he stares at in the mirror each night, perhaps as a form of self-punishment but most likely keeps them because he doesn’t want to expose himself to tattoo removers.
Norma instructs the routine-oriented Roth to take on her bi-racial grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as an apprentice. Maya’s mother recently died from breast cancer and she had a falling out with drug dealers who got her hooked on unhealthy substances as they did with her mother. In need of a fresh start, Maya shows up to Gracewood with a mentally exhausted but not unengaging demeanor and takes to her new studies and gardening team beautifully. A bond between Roth and Maya grows like the radiant flowers they produce but it doesn’t just happen overnight. Master Gardener takes its time building the growing comfort they find within one another. Roth represents a source of warmth Maya can rely on in a place she’d otherwise rather not be.
That Gracewood Garden is a former slave plantation, this is never directly addressed with those exact words. There’s no need. All the signs are there. The Antebellum architecture, the Spanish Moss trees, the faces on the fountain statues, and of course, Norma’s reign over the whole grounds. She dresses in fine clothing that only a Southerner would be caught dead in, maintains a dependent transactional relationship with her maid who wears a uniform that a woman in her position from the 60s would’ve worn and unapologetically wears her racial pride on her sleeve.
The casualty with which Norma flaunts her racism is not at all shocking, yet so horrifying and it is just that: Casual. She has a crudeness that she not only normalizes but nurtures the way Roth nurtures her grounds. Norma’s ugly side which she tries to hide under a veneer of being part of high society, becomes more clear as she consumes more wine at lunch and Manhattan’s during her daily cocktail hour. She relishes the ideals of the past and she refers to her sister's and niece's deaths to breast cancer as “tit cancer” and refers to Maya as “mixed blood”. “I don’t wish to fixate on the muck of the past,” she tells Maya when she visits her way too long after she’s started her apprenticeship. “This is a MUCK farm,” Maya responds.
Norma knows this is true. It’s simply not of any concern to her. The sexual relations between her and Roth stem entirely from her own needs. She’s turned on by Roth’s tattoos and treats him and everyone around her like a puppet. She knows exactly what she’s doing and expects everyone around her to play along as her dollies in her Antebellum puppet show, especially Maya whom she makes racially passive-aggressive remarks about as well as her deceased mother. “I’m not inadequate,” Maya tells her. “No. Of course you’re not” Norma smugly replies. “You’re impertinent”.
True impertinence in someone as genuine as Maya would be noticeable if it actually existed but back in reality, the gardens are flourishing, Roth and Maya are growing closer and the horny racist dowager is getting restless. Restless and jealous. She was already unhappy with Maya temporarily moving in after a violent assault from the dealers she used to deliver for and now, Roth’s assistance to Maya has proven too much for Norma to accept. Gracewood is not the “Garden of Eden”. Not even to Roth, he’s just convinced himself otherwise because he was in such a desperate situation of his own making upon arrival and took to his new life so passionately. Gracewood is at least a “Garden of Eden '' to Norma and she expels Roth and Maya from her ideal paradise forcing them both to hit the road and fend for themselves living out of motels.
The stress of it all drives Maya back to addiction which Roth helps her get through by attending various narcotic meetings with her and rubbing her back as she wretches out all the toxins of the substances she comes to rely on. Seeing Maya at her lowest is the final push for Roth to expose himself to her and he writes in his journal bearing all his tattoos while Maya sleeps, knowing she’ll wake up soon.
Maya is naturally horrified and disgusted and calls him out the next day. The two then sit down in a cafeteria where Roth attempts an explanation, ultimately realizing there isn’t one, only offering that he was raised to hate those different from him and that he’s not that person anymore. Roth doesn’t confirm nor deny killing in his former life leading Maya to smash a glass of water and storm off in tears of rage.
Roth books separate rooms for him and Maya and after spending a great deal of time alone to think, Maya shows up at Roth’s room where the glistening cinematography bathes them both in light from the outside moon. The score makes this scene strange, frightening, unpredictable, tender, and beautiful all at once. To undress is to bare all your wounds. To say what you cannot with words. This is the very clear context in Maya’s delivery of “I want to take my clothes off”. They were not said with desperation or insistence, just a blunt and honest truth. She makes Roth undress and slowly turn. The closeup on both their faces, as they observe the evils of the past on Roth’s body, is what acting is all about. So much is said without words. In films like Master Gardener, this is how you can say more than you ever intended. She orders him to get them removed in the future before he kneels in remorse in front of her and the two proceed to examine each other’s broken bodies as the screen turns to an empty night highway where the flowers are as bright as the moon. The beautiful score takes off in this scene as Maya and Roth yell loudly in triumph as they stick their heads out the window and stretch their arms representing some form of newly found freedom.
The messy, complicated, genuine, beautiful dynamic between Roth and Maya is most likely what audiences (And various critics) will think about after Master Gardener but the circumstances that surround them are equally as crucial and Weaver remains a memorable part of the experience however revolting Norma is. Ozark’s Esai Morales is also crucial in a brief scene as Roth’s witness protection case agent is on the verge of retiring. There is a kind of grief shadowed in this scene that neither of them can identify. The various possibilities of all that could have been loom over them as they near the end of their years-long unconventional friendship.
There is a version of Master Gardener that is much more confrontational, a version where so much of what happens is addressed more directly. It may seem like Schrader leaves a great deal out but the truth is, none of these characters are people who are fully capable of completely acknowledging their circumstances. They can only try and confront certain parts of it. These are all people who are in a long process of opening themselves up to one another (Some to embrace something new, others to maintain a dynamic that only serves them), and by the time the film ends, they still have a long way to go. It may take their entire lives but something tells me it will not take that long.
Master Gardener is the finale in Paul Schrader’s series of films that don’t have an official name. Some critics refer to it as the “Man In A Room” trilogy, others call it the “Redemption” trilogy. First Reformed, The Card Counter, and Master Gardener all dive into complex stories about quiet and reserved men wallowing in pain and guilt against the backdrop of a world whose evil they somehow contributed to. Master Gardener is the most extreme of the three and probably the right way to end the saga.
I would love to recommend Master Gardener to everyone, but there are too many that won’t get it or easily misinterpret various parts of it. Fortunately, there are equally so many cinephiles who will witness something worthwhile here and those viewers know who they are. “The seeds of love grow like the seeds of hate” Roth narrates. It’s the growth that either makes or breaks these people. The growth that can either elevate or destroy us. Ultimately, all seeds are the same. There’s nothing so very untrustworthy in the seeds themselves: You just have to be very careful in knowing where to plant them.
Bradley, M. (2023, May 25). Cinematique Presents: Master Gardener. WHQR. https://www.whqr.org/latest-local-news/2023-05-25/cinematique-presents-master-gardener