Hating a movie sucks. Full stop. I know some pundits get a kick out of writing a negative review, but in my humble opinion, it’s the worst part of the job. No one goes into a production hoping to make crap. Everyone intends to make something special. So, when it doesn’t succeed, I find it’s best to move on from it as quickly as possible. At the same time, this is the job, and the 60th New York Film Festival contained one of my least favorite flicks of 2022. Master Gardener is an absolute slog, without anything redeeming. Poorly paced, badly written, and a pale imitation of better works from the same filmmaker, it’s a chore to sit through. NYFF will likely not have something this year I cared for less. Folks, I loathed this one.
Master Gardener doesn’t work in the slightest. Filmmaker Paul Schrader has had some major highs and major lows in his career, with this being decidedly in the former category. If First Reformed brought him back from a sort of cinematic purgatory, The Card Counter saw him doubling down (no pun intended) on the style and themes that made that one a bit of a cult classic. Now, with Master Gardener, he’s gone to the well one too many times, eliciting eye rolls and laughter instead of the quiet contemplation that he’s going for.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is a meticulous horticulturist on the grounds of wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), tending to the plants with a perfectionist’s level of detail. Along with his team, Narvel has the grounds as a point of pride for Norma, though he also has a different relationship with her than anyone else. Partly indebted to her for giving him a chance at this job, given a shady past we only eventually learn about, she also utilizes him for other needs. One day, she asks him to bring on someone as an apprentice, which will change their relationship forever.
Norma wants Narvel to train her estranged grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who has had a troubled adolescence and early adulthood. The women have a strained relationship, due to how Maya’s mother was treated, but she takes a liking to Narvel. When she reveals some current troubles, he begins to utilize his contacts outside the grounds to help. That in turn reveals more about his past, which helps in explaining why he might see her as someone he needs to tend to.
Joel Edgerton certainly was hoping for the same treatment Schrader had recently given to Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac. That’s not the case here, at all. He’s fine in the role, but it’s so under-written that you never invest in his story. Quintessa Swindell and Sigourney Weaver fare even worse, as their characters change motivations seemingly by the scene. No one has any chemistry whatsoever, so when two sex scenes come out of nowhere, they’re comically mismanaged. The rest of the cast, which are barely factors, include Jared Bankens, Victoria Hill, Amy Le, Eduardo Losan, Esai Morales, and more.
Writer/director Paul Schrader is just repeating himself at this point. First Reformed (even if I was lukewarm on that one) and The Card Counter (which I quite liked) did the same thing so much better. In fact, certain scenes appear directly remade, in fact, just without any of their prior effectiveness. Schrader’s direction in Master Gardener is the least of his issues, even if he leaves his cast stranded. It’s the screenplay, which has his actors and actresses utterly inane dialogue, or worse, absurd dialogue. The longer the film goes on, the harder it gets to take seriously, in the slightest. It’s a shame, too, since Schrader has a note of optimism here for the first time in ages, but it’s in such a bad package, you almost wish he’d remain more of a miser.
Master Gardener comes close to being a parody of Schrader’s recent work. Not only is it sure to be a lowlight of NYFF this year, it reminds one far more of some of the filmmaker’s least interesting outings. Last year’s The Card Counter was well done enough to keep me hopeful for the next one, but this is a tumble back down to Earth, and that’s putting it mildly.