With his breathtaking drama, The Card Counter (2021), Paul Schrader became one of my favorite living American directors; and my admiration for his work has only increased with this newest crime thriller, Master Gardener (2022). I actually found a lot of similarities between these two films and Schrader’s 2017 offering, First Reformed, so much so that they can be considered a kind of trilogy—but where The Card Counter leaves us on a bit of a sour note (to say the very least), Master Gardener seems to be more interested in exploring optimism. Through Narvel, a horticulturist with a spotty past, we’re shown that redemption just might be possible, and maybe having hope for the future isn’t so silly after all.
As Narvel tries to help his coworker, Maya, escape a life of drugs and crime, he’s forced to face parts of himself he thought were long buried. There’s so much to like about this movie, but one of my favorite things was the music produced by Devonté Hynes, better known as his stage name, Blood Orange. Much like the work he did on Palo Alto (2013), Hynes’ lush synths create a more immersive viewing experience where audiences find themselves pulled into the screen. It really accentuates the characters' emotional journey and respective isolation in a delicate yet compelling way. The soundtrack blends perfectly with the visionary editing of Benjamin Rodriguez Jr., who creates fast-cut action scenes that feel like a shot of adrenaline, while also knowing when to slow things down to let us sink into the moment.
I can’t talk about this movie without talking about the performances given by the actors: Joel Edgerton’s simmering, brooding approach creates an atmosphere that leaves us on the edge of our seats, eager but also dreading to see whatever comes next. Sigourney Weaver’s Mrs. Haverhill is almost reminiscent of your favorite Scorsese crime boss, the way she always seems to be so cool and in control, making the few scenes where her fury is unleashed incredibly effective; and I’d be remiss to not praise Quintessa Swindell, who plays Maya with an incredible sense of vulnerability and commitment. In many ways, I can see this movie not working if it weren’t for the actors: some aspects of it are a bit sticky to say the least, but these performances help viewers navigate those nuances.
Overall, there’s really little to be desired with Master Gardener. The cinematography is amazing, full of eye-popping color and slick camerawork. It has it all: adrenaline, emotion and some pretty stunning visuals. I've been looking forward to this movie since seeing the poster, but didn’t know this was scheduled to show at New York Film Festival until the last minute. Lucky me! Be sure to watch it in theaters!
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