Venice 2022: Joel Edgerton is a Great Gardener in 'Master Gardener'
by Alex Billington
September 4, 2022
I will fully admit that before watching this, I thought to myself "this can't really be a film about a gardener, so I wonder what it's actually about?" Alas, I was wrong, and it is indeed a film about a gardener. Ha! Much the same way that Paul Schrader's last film, The Card Counter, is indeed about a card counter / gambler. Master Gardener tells the story of a gardener, played by Joel Edgerton, but as with all of Schrader's films the story heads to some intriguing places and he's not just a gardener. There is much more to him and we discover all this watching the story play out. That said, most of this film is beautiful because it involves Edgerton's character Narvel Roth gushing in his dairy about flowers & tending to gardens. I learned a great deal about flowers, soil, horticulture, nurturing plants, and garden culture all from watching this film. And even if the rest of it isn't that great, at least I seriously enjoyed all the discussion about flowers and gardens.
Master Gardener is the latest from American writer / director Paul Schrader, who also brought a film to Venice last year, too. The story introduces us to a peculiar man known as Narvel Roth (called "Sweet Pea" by the owner), who doesn't seem like any gardener you'd expect as he has a murky past, but he certainly knows what he's doing and stays focused on making sure the plants are taken care of. The owner of the gardens enjoys working with him and asks him to look after and help train a young woman that needs a change in her life – Maya played by Quintessa Swindell. Once they begin to work together, and he gets closer while helping her out, his past finally catches up with him and this is where the darker underbelly of this film is revealed. Overall, while similar in many ways, I found Master Gardener to be a much more captivating and fulfilling film than The Card Counter. Perhaps because I love flowers and gardens, and perhaps because Joel Edgerton seriously impressed me. The films are so similar it's likely everyone will prefer one over the other.
Schrader's films have become formulaic copies of themselves, and they always have three specific attributes that represent his storytelling template: 1) they're about redemption & forgiveness, with various characters overcoming the atrocities of their past through a story that allows the viewers to sympathize with them and understand their path to redemption. 2) There is always a moment of intimate connection, which changes two of the characters forever. Usually this is a psychical / sexual connection, because that's extra powerful. Even when Schrader's attempts at romance are sloppy and ham-fisted, they're important in the second half to keep the story developing. And 3) at the end, there is a big moment where something bad could happen and the bad guys could "get what's comin' to them", but Schrader never lets that happen and always steps back right before anything bad does happen. There's also the Schrader cliche of a "a man writing at a desk in a dark room with a lamp on." All of this is fine, it's just getting a bit repetitive to see; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Your mileage will vary depending on the setting and how it's handled in each film.
Let's just say that Schrader's Master Gardener reuses this template again without offering much of anything new or different. I was constantly amused by the many quips and witty bits of dialogue throughout, proving that Schrader is a much better writer than director. He is much more attuned to what's on the page and the words within the script. His visual language is fine, but it's not impressive or memorable in any way. All his shots of flowers and the garden and driving around are unmemorable and don't have any distinct style or look to them. This doesn't get in the way of the storytelling, but it also doesn't enhance it in any specific way either. Some viewers may find themselves moved more by the story than the visuals, while others will find the story dull and without any visuals to give it something more, the film won't be that impressive. As for me, as much as I didn't care for The Card Counter, this one had me hooked and I was smiling most of the time. Sometimes that redemption is earned and these characters do deserve our forgiveness & compassion.
My favorite element of Master Gardener's composition is Joel Edgerton's performance. He's ALWAYS great, but in this he's exceptional. I'm not even sure I can really credit Schrader for this, as I believe most of it is Edgerton's own understanding of the character and his masterful ability to craft & hone his performance to make that character work perfectly on screen in this film. Edgerton is SO fucking good I can't even find the words to properly describe him in this and praise him properly. Having heard his natural Australian accent in other films from Australia, it's always impressive to watch him play an American person without a hint of possibility that he's not American. And in this film, he perfectly embodies the former-tough-guy, slick-hair, reserved but strong, reformed man with a mysterious past who now just loves flowers and gardening. Maybe he can teach me some gardening as well? I'd be down for that. All the backstory in this is serviceable and works for the story, but isn't impactful, while everything about flowers and gardening is the most rewarding.