Alright! We are back in Paul Schrader land with his latest film, “Master Gardener.” Just as with “Taxi Driver” and “First Reformed” among other films, it focuses on a loner who keeps a journal and is struggling to deal with a past which was never less than traumatizing. Some directors tend to make the same film over and over again, but I always enjoy seeing Schrader doing so as he always has an interesting angle on this, and “Master Gardener” is no exception.
Joel Edgerton stars as Narvel Roth, an infinitely meticulous horticulturist who is employed at Gracewood Gardens, a beautiful estate owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Judging from the blooming flowers featured in the opening credits, this is an individual who takes his job ever so seriously as he clearly revels in bringing a garden and the flowers in it to exquisite life. There is even a scene where Narvel invites his fellow workers to smell the soil they have been working on endlessly. Watching this, it made me wish this film came with one of those scratch and sniff cards like those Odorama cards John Waters used for “Polyester.” I would love to have smelled what these characters were taking in as it might just give new meaning to the word “organic.”
Norma, who it turns out is having an affair of sorts with Narvel, has invited her wayward step-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), to become his apprentice. While Maya may be a wealth of trouble at home, she slides into her new job with what seems like relative ease. But, as you can expect, nothing will stay sane for our main characters as revelations of who they are will truly eventually come to the surface whether everyone is prepared for it or not.
Looking at Narvel and hearing how he talks, it is tempting to think he has been a dignified individual since birth, but he eventually takes off his shirt to reveal two things: he has spent a lot of time at the gym, and he has a plethora of tattoos of swastikas and other neo-Nazi images covering his body which indicate he has had a racist past which he is trying to get past. It would have been enough if Narvel had just one swastika tattooed on him to indicate he was once a white supremacist, but the fact he has so many reminded me of a scene from Martin Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” remake in which Robert Mitchum looked over Robert De Niro’s heavily tattooed body and said, “Jesus! I don’t know whether to look at him or read him.”
This revelation brings about complexities as we wonder if Norma and Maya are aware of Narvel’s sordid past. Looking at this, I kept thinking Narvel would reveal the truth of his past existence to both women in an intelligent fashion. But if he did, would this film have such rich dramatic tension?
Gardening and horticulture never struck me as something which could be captured in a cinematic way as it can seem rather boring. It is a credit to Schrader and company that “Master Gardener” makes gardening seem far more immersive than it might be to some. Like I said before, I would love to smell this garden Narvel is cultivating because it is clear no one can cultivate one the way he can.
Schrader also makes the characters and their situations all the more dramatic by pointing out how different their ages are to one another. Now I have long since learned to NOT ask any women their age as serious bodily harm is likely to occur and deservedly so, Norma being almost twice Narvel’s age and Maya being close to half of his. Taboos are bexploited for dramatic effect as certain things are not quickly accepted in today’s culture, but here we may need to look more closely at what is going on.
Looking at Joel Edgerton’s resume, I wonder if I have given him enough credit as an actor. He has played a variety of roles in the “Star Wars” prequels, “The Thing” prequel, “The Felony” and “The Gift” among other films. Each has shown him going from playing good guys to villains with relative ease, and that is a gift many in his field would love to have. While it might seem like Edgerton is playing Narvel as a far too reserved, it becomes clear why this is the case as he nails this character’s complexities perfectly from start to finish.
Sigourney Weaver is a very welcome presence here. As Norma, she gives off a very regal vibe which makes her seem like a peaceful individual, but her play on words reveals someone whose anger is just simmering beneath the surface. I also love how she makes indigent sound like a four-letter word.
Quintessa Swindell does very interesting work as Maya. We learn a lot about this character before she appears onscreen, and Swindell makes Maya into something more than a mere cliché or stereotype that many might expect her to be. As we find Maya becoming involved with a man who is at least a decade older than her, Swindell comes to hold her own opposite Edgerton in their scenes together to where it becomes clear who has the upper hand in this relationship.
When it comes to Schrader and his films, he typically works with the bare minimum of budgets, and I am always impressed with what he accomplishes with them regardless of how tight they are. The cinematography by Alexander Dynan is quite lovely, the music score by Dev Hynes fits the material just fine, and kudos to those who gave Schrader the money to make this one as indie films like these do not get as much support as they once did.
How does “Master Gardener” compare to Schrader’s other works? Hard to say as there are many I still need to watch. This one does not quite reach the cinematic heights of “First Reformed” or “Affliction,” but this one reminds me of what a compelling voice he still is in cinema. Perhaps the conclusion left me wanting more as it did not quite fill my cinematic bloodlust, but maybe that was because I was expecting the wrong kind of movie. Whereas many of Schrader’s films end in an orgy of violence, this one concludes in a way which gives a certain piece of dialogue from “Natural Born Killers” an infinite amount of meaning, “Love beats the demon.”
Perhaps the loners who inhabit Schrader’s recent works have found reasons to not end their lives in an intensely dramatic and fatal fashion as the women they encounter give them a reason to live on. While the writer of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull” might be treading through familiar territory, it is clear he has found how love can alter one’s destiny. This makes “Master Gardener” stand out in a memorable way as it defies certain expectations which I never should have brought into the theater in the first place.
Moreover, this film makes me view gardening and cultivating in a whole new light. I really enjoyed the specifics Schrader gives us when it comes to certain flowers as few other writers could these details down so perfectly. Perhaps I should visit the local flower or garden shop to truly appreciate the plants and their smells which are on display here.
I am glad Schrader is still making films in this cinematic climate. There always needs to be something outside of the mainstream.
* * * ½ out of * * * *