Paul Schrader has found his mojo in this latest act of his storied career, and Master Gardener acts as a thematic companion to his two previous films, First Reformed and The Card Counter. All three center on emotionally-bruised men who have found a sense of balance in their work, only to have the delicate solitude disrupted by passion. They all begin with these men dutifully writing in their journals in a lonely, isolated back room. Schrader is an old hand at violent stories of redemption and revenge, and he sets the soil for another one here. And while it takes time to fully sprout, the wait for full bloom is worth it.
Joel Edgerton’s Narvel Roth is the perfect Paul Schrader protagonist: brooding, mannered, a man with a tortured past. Narvel works as the horticulturist for wealthy employer Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), an old antebellum South-style dowager with a prominent estate. Mostly, her concern is for the garden, a lush and lovely thing with rare plants that she hopes to keep in the family for generations. She has entrusted this task to Narvel, a meticulous man both in action and in demeanor. He doesn’t speak much, but he waxes poetic about the beauty of gardening. “You amaze me when you get romantic”, a fawning female colleague says to him. Narvel doesn’t show any kind of romantic interest, though. He shows a little towards Haverhill, though, perhaps because the two occasionally enjoy a nice dinner and a tumble together, always at her request.
But it’s clear that something about Narvel doesn’t quite jibe with the perfectly-curated surroundings. Nothing about the world he lives in feels authentic. We get clues in flashes of a violent past, and a time before he was Narvel Roth. It’s the arrival of Naverhill’s troublesome grand niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) who begins to shatter the facade. Tasked with becoming Narvel’s new apprentice, she becomes something considerably more: a lover, a possible path towards redemption.
Schrader constructs a simple story where all of the relationships are knotty ones. Haverhill can’t be left out of this equation, either. She invites Maya to stay with her but can barely acknowledge the “mixed-blood” girl’s presence, too caught up in years-old family squabbles passed down from one generation to the next. Weaver’s Haverhill is fascinating, and funny in the way old rich folks from bygone eras tend to be. The film is somewhat less interesting when she goes away for long stretches. You want to just sit with her and listen to her cope with “the help” and complain about the quality of sandwiches served for lunch.
Narvel’s past, once revealed, isn’t anything new. It causes some conflict with Maya due to her cultural background, but they are interesting together for other reasons. Maintaining the mentor/student dynamic even as lovers, Narvel’s past personal demons clash with Maya’s present ones. The way they help one another deal with them feels natural, organic. Even Narvel’s retreat to old, savage tendencies on her behalf make sense to someone fighting to maintain what he never thought he’d have.
Schrader’s direction and production design are predictably simple. He frames each shot in workmanlike fashion and with a bare minimum of bells and whistles. Haverhill’s estate doesn’t actually look like much for all of the talk of lavish galas that she throws. The simple construction and color scheme only draw more attention to the one scene where the colors are fully allowed to explode, a drive through a floral wonderland where Maya and Narvel allow their emotions to finally burst free.
While always a gripping character study, Master Gardener is sometimes modest to a fault, with stretches that are like watching the weeds grow. But Edgerton offers a powerful performance, shifting from imposing to sensitive at a moment’s notice. He has a presence that few actors can match, and he has found the perfect director in Schrader whose austere style suits him. Weaver compels with every single word, while Swindell, the non-binary actor who recently played the superhero Cyclone in Black Adam, more than holds her own and is a vital component to bringing this garden to blossom.
Master Gardener is in theaters now.