Directed by Paul Schrader, Master Gardener is a drama film that focuses on redemption of a man with an extremely dark past as he tries to rectify all the wrongs in his former life. The plot is centered around Narvel Roth, a horticulturist at a private estate garden owned by the very rich Norma Haverhill, who strikes up an unexpected bond with Norma’s granddaughter, Maya. The plot and characters here are not entirely convincing, and some more depth, especially with regards to the characters, would have made things better. But Master Gardener still pulls off as a good watch, owing to the direction style and the visuals.
‘Master Gardener’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
Master Gardener begins with an introduction to Narvel Roth, the titular horticulturist, or, definitely, master gardener, who is equally invested and passionate about the work of maintaining a garden. Narvel is responsible for the keeping of a large private garden owned by a rich widower named Norma Haverhill, and he has a team of young apprentices who are all learning the art from him. The man is also quite close to Norma, who often calls him to her house to seemingly discuss matters related to the garden. Together with his close team, including Isobel, Xavier, and Maggie, Narvel starts to prepare for the annual charity auction, which is a distinguished event that takes place at the estate garden. Soon, the protagonist gets a call to visit his employer, Mrs. Haverhill, at her lavish house inside the estate, and Narvel quickly responds.
While he believes the meeting is being called to discuss the upcoming charity auction, Narvel is told otherwise. Norma reveals that she had been close to her sister’s daughter for some time before turning the woman away after she had made some choices in life that went against Norma’s beliefs. However, this woman had recently died, leaving behind a daughter of twenty or so, all alone, as Norma’s sister had passed away as well. In an effort to help this grandniece of hers, named Maya, who also has apparently made some questionable decisions, Norma wants Narvel to take her into his apprenticeship program. Narvel does not have any particular reason to turn down this request, or order, really, and he agrees to teach Maya once she arrives.
While Narvel Roth mostly spends his days tending to the plants and flowers and then writing a daily journal about his experiences and thoughts related to gardening, some deeper trouble seems to often bother him. The man has dreams of firing guns and being part of some violent group; until one day, we are shown his bare torso. With multiple tattoos of white supremacy and neo-Nazi symbols, it is very evident that Narvel was once part of a horrific racist group.
How Does Maya’s Initial Time At The Estate Go?
After Maya first arrives at the estate, she is greeted by Narvel and then by the rest of the group. The protagonist explains the basics of the work to be done, which includes practical work as well as studies regarding plants and flowers, with the apprentices also having to prove their knowledge through examinations. It is evident that Narvel takes the entire matter very seriously, and being an apprentice under him is surely an activity that demands much time and effort. Perhaps this is why Norma Haverhill had chosen this new role for her grandniece, for Maya was indeed involved with drug peddling, and she herself had an addiction as well. But even though she had chosen, and was paying, to help her grandniece out of a troubled life, Norma incidentally does not meet Maya for the first few days, and the young woman instead just spends time with the gardening team.
Despite her apparent troubles in life, Maya is a fast and intelligent learner, as she quickly gains knowledge and picks up on the techniques associated with horticulture. Over this period of time, she also starts to grow a bond with Narvel, who is also equally interested in knowing Maya better. After some more days pass, Maya comes to the garden one morning looking for help from her new friends, as she is visibly injured. As the other apprentices and Narvel himself enquire about what had happened, Maya gradually reveals that the man for whom she peddles drugs had beaten her up. The man, named RG, used to be the dealer during Maya’s mother’s time as well, and after the mother had passed away, young Maya started to run errands for the criminal. But now, as the woman starts to come to the estate garden and find a new life here, there is enough possibility of her leaving her old ways and starting afresh. RG was definitely not okay with this, and for this reason, he had beaten the girl up, threatening her not to return to the garden.
What Was Narvel’s Secret Past?
As is gradually revealed in Master Gardener, Narvel Roth was a completely different man in his younger days, as he was part of a violent white supremacist group. Narvel’s actual name was Norton Rupplea, and it is suggested that more than willfully choosing to join this group, the man was actually born and brought up amidst such hateful thoughts. In essence, it suggests that Narvel’s family was also involved with such groups and beliefs, and for this, he had blindly followed this same path for a considerable part of his life. But the film does not reveal anything else about this, though, and Narvel’s actions from the past are, in general, shown in short scenes strewn all across the narrative. After having committed multiple acts of violence and killing many people, he had been appointed to murder a Black man named Charles Avery, whose only crime was that he was publicly against the leader of Narvel’s group, referred to as the Old Man.
Narvel had obviously followed the murder plan, as he was always very committed to the cause of his group, but it was also this very instance that first planted a seed of doubt in his mind. The Old Man had ordered the protagonist to murder Charles Avery and also to not let any witnesses live, suggesting that he should kill Avery’s family members as well. But when Narvel arrived at the scene and shot Avery dead, he noticed the man’s wife and young daughter in the corner of the room and, for some reason, could not bring himself to kill them. This was the first time that Narvel started to question the decisions of his group, and from this point onward, he had gradually changed into a completely different man.
After Narvel was arrested for some crime, he eventually spilled the beans on all his friends to the police. As a result, Narvel was taken under witness protection by the FBI, and all the members of the violent racist group were arrested and imprisoned. In essence, Narvel had wiped out the existence of the whole gang, and he needed to be kept safe from any supporters of the racist far-right beliefs. It was for this reason that his handler in the FBI, an agent named Oscar Neruda, had gotten in touch with Norma Haverhill and sent Narvel to the estate to look after the grand garden at the place while also staying far away from public view. Master Gardener does not provide major details as to why exactly Narvel suddenly had a change of heart or why he accepted the disguise of a horticulturist in particular, and the film is more interested in the present than the past. Although Narvel had been instructed never to contact Neruda by himself, the man now breaks that rule after he learns what had happened with Maya. Narvel’s request to the FBI agent is that the authorities track down RG and his friend Sissy, both of whom had troubled Maya, and give them a stern warning about hurting women.
Why Does Norma Order Narvel And Maya To Leave Her Estate?
While the negative side of Narvel was restricted to his past days, the potentially antagonistic behavior of Norma Haverhill continues even at present, as every decision of the character has some dubious or selfish motivation. The reason why Norma had brought Maya to her estate house after these many years had to do with her own situation. The woman was suffering from some health issues, which she does not categorically reveal, due to which she was thinking of stopping the annual charity auction the next year. She had plans of maintaining the estate garden, though, with Narvel at the helm, and she gave him the responsibility of technically running the whole place. Knowing that she would not be around for long, Norma wanted to hand over the estate to some family member, and Maya happened to be the only person available. Norma was not proud or supportive of either Maya or her mother; in fact, she had turned away Maya’s mother because she had given birth to a mixed-race child, which meant that she had gotten romantically involved with a non-white person. There is very evidently a trace of racism in Norma, which is less expressive than Narvel’s old friends, but perhaps equally prejudiced against non-white people.
This was seemingly the reason for the woman not seeing Maya for the first few days and then eventually having an argument with her in the very first meeting that they had. On the other side, Norma was also involved with Narvel in a twisted relationship, as she would often call for the man and spend nights with him in her house. There is a sense in Norma that she believes she can do certain things only because of her wealth, and surely she tries her hand at these things. The woman was very well aware of Narvel’s past association, as she had seen his naked body countless times, and she was also aware of how the man was terribly ashamed of his past. It is almost a twisted reminder that she is his employer and can therefore do anything with him, that Norma assigns Narvel to get close to and teach horticulture to Maya.
The idea, perhaps, is that Narvel would get very awkward and guilty while around Maya and then maybe eventually force a fallout between the two by revealing Narvel’s past. But what Norma does not notice is that the master gardener and the apprentice indeed start to get close to each other and even develop an attraction. After Maya is attacked by her drug dealer, she is given residence inside the estate garden, and one night, Narvel and Maya make it obvious that they are attracted to each other. Norma finds out about this and calls both of them to her house the next morning. She then orders the two to immediately leave her estate and find their own ways, perhaps half-expecting them to plead with her to let them stay. However, Narvel chooses to side with Maya, and he takes the young woman away with him, spending the next few days together.
‘Master Gardener’ Ending Explained: Does Narvel Kill Rg And Sissy?
During their time together, Maya eventually finds out about Narvel’s tattoos and his past, but she also allows the man to tell her everything about it. She continues to be with Narvel but tells him to get the tattoos removed, and the man agrees to do so. He also helps her get rid of the drug addiction, supporting her through every stage since he, too, had once gone through the same process. When visiting Maya’s neighborhood, Narvel had spotted RG and Sissy and had taken the chance to threaten them again, hoping that the two criminals would change their ways too. However, the exact opposite happened, as the two young men decided to teach Narvel a lesson and found out more about him. Believing that he was still living in the estate garden, RG and Sissy visited the place and completely trashed it, uprooting all the plants and making a complete mess. They had also seemingly found out about Narvel’s past, as they had spray-painted the Nazi swastika symbol inside the man’s residential building. Or, it could be that RG was himself of such destructive beliefs and had left his message of neo-Nazism behind.
By this time, Narvel had realized that he would no longer get any more support from the FBI, as his handler Neruda had also been replaced by someone else, and so he decided to take his own revenge. With the help of Maya, he tracks down the two men and even carries his gun from the old days along. At first, he offers Maya the gun to kill RG and Sissy, but the woman does not want to do it. For a moment after this, Narvel himself gets the chance to shoot the men dead, but he ultimately chooses against it. Killing would have once again made Narvel just like his old self, which he was extremely ashamed of and even hated. As an ultimate sign of him having overcome the dark effects of hatred, Narvel heavily injures RG and Sissy, breaking their knees as a reminder to stay away from Maya, and their own abusive ways, forever.
At the end of Master Gardener, Narvel returns to the estate and meets with Norma and promises to restore the garden back to its old self if she agrees to some terms of his. Narvel knew very well that Norma would not trust anybody else to restore her garden, so he took advantage of the situation to make her realize the helplessness of her situation. His first demand is that Norma fund the garden for one more year and that next year’s charity auction is held, promising that the estate garden will be perfectly restored by then. Narvel’s next and final demand is that he and Maya would continue to live in his cabin inside the estate premises as husband and wife, and Norma would not stop them. The woman is livid at such an ask, and she even tries to threaten the man with her father’s old handgun, but Narvel quickly points out that the gun is empty and not even in working condition, making Norma understand that she has no control over the situation anymore. Through this final move, Narvel Roth not only ends the somewhat exploitative relationship between her and Norma, but he also continues his efforts at changing the many wrongs from his past into right decisions in the present and future.