Film Review: 'Master Gardener': Gardening as Metaphor for Purification and Redemption

Mark Jackson

Writer-director Paul Schrader serves up yet another antihero plagued by a troubled, violent past in “Master Gardener." Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is a former neo-Nazi, now in witness protection, who works as the head gardener on the enormous Southern estate of the to-the-plantation-born domineering heiress Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver).

It should be said at the outset that, based on that premise, some might immediately want to designate this film as more foisting of the Hollywood leftist agenda—more racial divide-and-conquer Marxist-type propaganda. That's certainly a possibility. But the purification and redemption themes would appear to overpower such speculation. It seems to be much more of a good-always-wins-in-the-end message.

Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), and "Porch Dog," in "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), and "Porch Dog," in "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)

Back to Narvel Roth: A man dedicated to his craft, with an encyclopedic knowledge of horticultural history, Narvel oversees the "curated botany" of Norma's Gracewood Gardens. She respects Narvel’s mastery, defers to his opinions, and he in turn is very honest with her. But secretly, he's providing extorted, unsavory favors for her being complicit in keeping his former identity, as Shakespeare would say, “in the deep bosom of the ocean buried.”

Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is the master gardener, in "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is the master gardener, in "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)

The Grand Niece

After the lay of the land, mansion, garden, and the help’s various relationships to Norma are established, Norma saddles Narvel with a new job. Her biracial grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell) who recently lost her mother, will be joining the ranks.

Maya has dropped out of school and started running with a bad crowd. Norma describes Maya as being of “mixed blood.” Her choice of words speaks volumes about her thinly veiled disapproval, and her invitation to Maya to work at the manor is far more of a self-aggrandizing act of saviorism than generosity. Narvel will be so kind as to expand his duties to take Maya on as a new gardening apprentice.

Maya (Quintessa Swindell) is a gardening apprentice, in "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)
Maya (Quintessa Swindell) is a gardening apprentice, in "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)

Truth Will Out

Addressing his small group of apprentices, Narvel is quietly passionate. He explains loam, the best planting soil, urging his students to bury their noses in it and infuse their nostrils with the rich scent. Take a wild guess as to how the young, rebellious Maya’s relationship to the older, taciturn, wise, brutally handsome, in-charge, fatherly, master gardener evolves? What driftless, fatherless girl wouldn’t develop a yearning for such a man?

And how would he, a man who hates himself for past, sordid, genocidal sins as well as the current "dirty deeds done dirt cheap" that he needs to perform weekly to keep his situation—how would he respond to the attention of a comely member of the “mongrel race” that he’d once obsessed about exterminating? He, a changed man who gave up his familial militia to the Feds, and who would like nothing more than to be able to atone?

But the past has a way of working its way to the surface like a persistent weed. How might Maya react were she to catch a glimpse of the white supremacy tattoo-fest of lightning-bolt SS symbols, swastikas, and skulls that cover Narvel’s body?

And at one point, elderly Norma, spying on Narvel visiting young Maya's cabin late at night, jumps to conclusions as to the meaning of his visit. It could merely be the case that Maya got beat up by her drug-dealer friends and Narvel is tending to her wounds. Are Norma's assumptions correct?
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) and Maya (Quintessa Swindell) are teacher and apprentice, among other things, in "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) and Maya (Quintessa Swindell) are teacher and apprentice, among other things, in "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)


Most of the movie follows the Narvel-Maya relationship as it evolves from teacher-pupil, to father-daughter, to potentially something more. There’s an intuited, kindred-spirit connection that they feel, part of which are the pasts they’re both attempting to outrun. Schrader plays around with our expectations, taking things in some unpredictable directions.

Edgerton’s charisma produces a beguiling portrayal of a solitary man seeking atonement, via current-day scenes and unsettling flashbacks. In today’s social media-generated, knee-jerk judgment hysteria, though, some viewers may recoil at the film's premise to the point that they’re unable to accept the titular character’s inner change of heart, hung up as they will be by the extremes of his past (and tattoos).

But this is just the kind of cognitive dissonance that Schrader would clearly like people to experience, where the audience has to wrestle with uncomfortable themes. It’s in this relationship that Schrader’s provocateur reputation is most apparent. However, the story is delicately told, with disarming and captivating tenderness.

The Zen quality of gardening, with its constant battle to control the anarchy of nature, is the perfect metaphor for Narvel's attempt to keep his old identity weeded out and his new one blossoming. And over all hangs the healing power and soul purification of nature. At one point, he removes his shoes and soliloquizes about the toxic effect that shoes and concrete have on the souls of modern humans.

Ultimately, though, “Master Gardener” is about the futility of trying to maintain strict order and isolation in life. Narvel’s journey from violence to redemption must embrace the chaos that is Maya. It’s a great concept. If only the movie’s tempo didn't move at the pace of a garden snail on a rutabaga leaf.

“Master Gardener" will have a limited run in theaters.
Movie poster for "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)
Movie poster for "Master Gardener." (Magnolia Pictures)
‘Master Gardner’ Director: Paul Schrader Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell MPAA Rating: R Running Time: 1 hour, 51 minutes Release Date: May 19, 2023 Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years’ experience as a New York professional actor, working in theater, commercials, and soap operas. He has a classical theater training and a BA in philosophy from Williams College. As a voice actor, he recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook, “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World.” Mark's professors suggested he become a professional writer. He became a professional actor instead. Now he writes professionally about acting. In the movies.
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