“I’m just a gardener who used to be someone else.” Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener presses the idea of the redemption and the spiritual evolution of a man plagued by a disturbing and shameful past. It presents the man’s fearful retrospect on his life, a life he wasted on idealizing and idolizing White supremacy, and the manner in which gardening facilitates his transformation and resurrection. In addition to gardening, what also plays an instrumental role in helping him venture into the path of redemption is his relationship with a young biracial girl who threatens the very ideals that he stood for, ideals that continue to sit heavily on his skin, literally and figuratively.
Master Gardener (2023) Plot Summary & Movie Synopsis:
The film opens with its central character, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), sitting and journaling in a dark room. Narvel Roth is the learned horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, presumably a plantation estate owned by the wealthy, elderly, and obsessive Mrs. Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Along with his small crew, he tends to the gardens of Gracewood and organizes charity auctions for the gardens.
During one of their discussions, Norma makes a special request to Narvel. She asks Narvel to take her grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), under his wing as an apprentice. The film also gives out the presence of a sexual liaison between Mrs. Haverhill and Narvel. Furthermore, it is also revealed that Narvel was part of a White supremacist militant group and is presently under witness protection.
Maya arrives at Gracewood but, although she takes to her teammates well, shows little interest in gardening and horticulture. Tensions start heating up between Mrs. Haverhill and Maya, with Narvel constantly acting as a mediator.
One day, when Maya is physically abused by her drug dealer, Narvel decides to give her protection by asking her to stay back at Gracewood and asking his WITSEC case agent to intimidate the culprit. Sexual tensions start developing between Narvel and Maya. When Mrs. Haverhill, who is obsessed with Narvel, spots him leaving Maya’s cabin at night, she insults them and banishes both of them from Gracewood.
Master Gardener (2023) Movie Ending, Explained
Upon arriving at Maya’s locality, Narvel threatens R.G., the drug dealer, of the consequences of his action. Narvel and Maya start staying together in motels. One night, when a bare-bodied Narvel is journaling, Maya spots his tattoos comprising of banned neo-Nazi symbols. The next day when she confronts him angrily, Narvel says that he felt it pertinent to reveal to her that he had a past life that was driven by hate, but his life has changed since. Maya gets infuriated; however, that night, things subside after they engage sexually.
In the morning, Narvel gets a call from his team reporting vandalism caused by R.G. and his accomplice at the estate. He arrives at the estate to find his cabin plastered with signs of swastika. Narvel unearths a gun from his cabin before he leaves, a gun from his militant days. Maya leads Narvel to the den of R.G., where both of them threaten him with a gun. When Maya decides against shooting R.G. and his friend, Narvel breaks their legs. Both Narvel and Maya return to the estate after this. Narvel pronounces to Mrs. Haverhill that he and Maya would continue to stay at the gardener’s cabin as husband and wife.
Why is there tension between Norma Haverhill and Maya?
By the look of it, Gracewood Gardens can be perceived as a colonial plantation estate. Or, if one were to get rid of the sense of innocuousness that the term exudes, it is simply a labor camp that tries hard to whitewash its history but never tries enough. Norma Haverhill has inherited the plantation estate.
Although Norma takes in Maya, she does not do it from a place of affection or care for her grandniece but from a sense of patronizing obligation. The biracial identity of Maya is an ick for Norma Haverhill. It is almost as if her motive to give Maya a place at the Gracewood is actually her progenitorial desire to have a non-White slave in her plantation-turned-garden. However, she cannot treat her as one, as this non-White girl is perhaps her only surviving family member.
When Maya and Norma meet after years for the first time, the latter resorts to insulting Maya’s mother and her ‘lifestyle choices’. Hinting at the choice of Maya’s mother to marry a non-White person, Norma calls her inadequate in a condescending tone. She says her mother couldn’t weed her garden, possibly hinting at her failure to stop herself from mixing with those outside her race.
Norma is the first to broach this topic; however, when Maya starts coming up with uncourteous and curt replies, Norma tries to leave the conversation, which, according to her, has now become centered around the muck of the past. At this, Maya stresses that the place itself is a muck farm. Now, biophysically speaking, that might indeed be true. However, given the contents of Norma’s interests and what she has just discounted as muck and weed, it is possible to read that Maya is aware of the history of the Gracewood Gardens and its continued tradition of racism. It is perhaps her way of reminding Norma that Norma is not very out-of-place from her ancestral obligations to perpetuate discrimination.
Additionally, what adds to this tension is the growing sexual charge between Narvel and Maya, as Norma is already besotted with the former.
Master Gardener (2023) Movie Themes Explained:
Paul Schrader presents the story of Narvel with the central theme of a human life, so faulty and so wayward inherently, and its perceived patterns of redemption. The character, Narvel, can be seen as embodying suffering borne out of his choices, the price he has to pay for brandishing a hateful identity by discarding his identity altogether. However, a second chance at resurrection comes when he involves himself with gardening. To strengthen that comes a young girl with her own past baggage.
The Path to redemption
Narvel is now under witness protection after having been a part of a supremacist militant group formerly. In fact, when he meets his case agent and the two have a brief conversation about his life from hereon, it is revealed that his actual name is Norton Rupplea. He has betrayed the members of his group by not only leaving witnesses to the killing of a black Reverend but also by turning up as a witness for the state to oust his neo-Nazi allies.
The question is, does he manage to forego his past devotion completely? Answers are unclear but may lie hidden in the experiences of his everyday life, which brings back sensorial memories of his life as a White supremacist. Roth’s informed meditations on botany coincide with the evocations of his past life. For instance, Roth describes the smell of the nardina plant as capable of producing an exhilarating ‘buzz’ “like the buzz [you get] just before pulling the trigger”. We also encounter an ambiguous response from him when Maya confronts him about his tattoos bearing Nazi symbols and asks him to remove them. It is also unclear as to how Narvel turns up at the Gracewood, takes an interest in gardening, and whether Mrs. Haverhill is aware and supportive of his past.
However, the film shows Narvel gradually opening up to Maya and establishment of a mutual relationship where both help each other to let go of their haunting pasts. Narvel claims to Maya that he is a changed man and that he would get rid of his damning tattoos.
Gardening as a burial to the past
“In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens”, so wrote Oliver Sacks.
Although it is unclear as to whether Narvel developed any neurological disease due to his traumatic past and required any therapeutic assistance, the life-altering service of gardening in healing Narvel cannot be ignored.
Narvel is seen constantly equating the way of plants and flowers with the way of human life. After the damage to the gardens, Narvel says to Norma, “Plants rejuvenate; that’s what they do., Like us.” Perhaps, through observing the plants grow, die, and survive, Narvel has found answers to his dilemma– he has found the key to his survival in a new life after offering burial to his past one. Narvel, like the plants, rejuvenates; and his rejuvenation comes from coming in close contact with the plants, flowers, and the young Maya.
The Christian image of the Master Gardener
Given Schrader’s own faith in Christianity, it would not be an exaggeration to claim that the heart of the film is constructed with Christian imagery.
The title ‘Master Gardener’ can be read as a direct allusion to Christ as one of his forms when appearing to Mary was that of a gardener.
Like a gardener tends to the plants, it is believed that God nurtures every human soul, whether virtuous or corrupt. Nobody is beyond redemption, and the path to redemption for even an utmost sinful life can be achieved through complete submission to the Master Gardener. Narvel’s indulgence in gardening can be read as taking the first step towards redemption. It brings him closer to the Heavenly Gardener.
Gardening is a way of Narvel through which he sheds his previous sinful identity and becomes at once with his spiritual self. In tandem with that, Narvel’s action of taking Maya under his wings can be closely related to how Jesus took people under his wing and helped them flourish. The spilling over of virtues from Jesus to those people is much like the qualities of Narvel that find reflections in Maya, her action of cutting ties with the past and coming to terms with the reality of the present.