At The Movies With Josh: Master Gardener

This will be the most disappointing movie I see this year. Perhaps not the worst, but possibly making my Top 10 of the worst. That’s because it’s by Paul Schrader wrote the best movie of 1980, and arguably the entire 80s decade – Raging Bull. He’s written some other solid screenplays, including 2017’s First Reformed, which made my Top 10 list that year. His last movie, The CardCounter, was a mess, but had some interesting moments. I was hoping this would be a return to form.

I’m also a big fan of Joel Edgerton (and his underrated brother Nash). Yet playing protagonist Narvel Roth as a reclusive horticulturist, his acting is one-note. His dialogue is crap. And nothing he, or any character, does or says, is anything that seems remotely like what any person would do. This is also the type of story where we’re supposed to root for this guy. Yet he acts so stiff, and when we see flashbacks of him killing people as a member of a white supremist group…it’s hard to care about his character. He may be great with the gardeners working for him, and the daffodils, but we saw him shoot a black man in front of his wife and kid. Do we give him a pass on that because he’s great at fertilizing plants? 

When a pretty young African-American woman (Quintessa Swindell) starts working for him, and he seems to be a great teacher/mentor for her, what? We’re supposed to root for that relationship? And when she sees his swastika tattoos, white power, etc. all up his back and chest…we’re supposed to buy that she’d just go back to sleep? I’d be afraid he’d kill me in my sleep! Hell, my wife hears a cricket, owl, or coyote outside and she’s afraid to go back to sleep. Ink like that apparently doesn’t phase this woman. And we’re supposed to buy that she’d continue to stay with him, especially when he gives no explanation for why he was involved with these groups, or how he changed. In fact, he gave her absolutely nothing. 

Norma (Sigourney Weaver) runs the gardens at a Louisiana plantation, and the young lady is her grand niece, who had a troubled life. She also talks in a way that no person speaks. My wife and I kept asking each other why she was saying the things she was saying. In real life, she’s 25 years older. And since this seems to be part of a witness protection arrangement, her making him “take her to bed” seems rather unethical. When she has him take off his shirt to inspect his tattoos, you wonder – has she not seen them before? Do they get her excited? Both that, and his first love scene with the young girl, are the most bizarre sex scenes of the year.

The way Edgerton narrates the information we hear about the variety of plants and flowers, also doesn’t ring true. When Clint Eastwood played a drug mule in The Mule, we could buy him being into gardening. And if anyone has baggage that would make it hard for us to buy that type of character, it would be Eastwood. 

I kept thinking about how Schrader seemed to be borrowing from his previous films, but doing it poorly. For example, Ethan Hawke as the priest who journals his thoughts in First Reformed. We’re supposed to think that this guy who writes so eloquently about the history of gardening and what it means, and specific flowers – that when we see the tattoos, we’ll be shocked by the contrast. Instead, it felt contrived. The tattoos were shocking with De Niro playing Max Cady in the remake of Cape Fear. That’s because tattoos weren’t as common on people back then, and those were all about revenge and the legal system that he learned about while incarcerated. 

Even things like Maya’s recovery from addiction seemed to be unrealistic. It was two days in a hotel puking (again, another movie with a vomit scene), and a few Narcotics Anonymous meetings. Convenient. Now we can move on to beating up some drug dealers and be on our way.

There were a few scenes I liked. I enjoyed a dream sequence in which the couple drive down a forest road and the flowers around them bloom in magical colors. I also liked watching Narvel threaten low-level drug dealers with pruning shears, and later taking out one of their kneecaps. The meetings with the officer dealing with Norvel were done well, and it’s nice he wasn’t written like some jerk who was just using Norvel or didn’t care about him.

But with a screenwriter like Schader, and two hours of watching something that was boring and poorly paced – this is a movie I think almost everyone will hate.

The characters had no chemistry with each other, and rarely said anything of interest. It’s also a shame that they cast an incredible actor like Esai Morales and didn’t give him much to do.

0 stars, for a story that never takes root.

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