Master Gardener is a low-key, quiet, character study. Written and directed by the sometimes excellent, always interesting, Paul Schrader, it is the story of a man with a shameful past who must acknowledge it again when his present causes him to question who he really is. Schrader’s movies tend to have strong religious overtones. This time, they are below the surface. Themes of atonement and rebirth hang heavily over it, yet it isn’t overtly religious. It also isn’t preachy (except about flowers). This man was who he was and now is who he is. He makes no excuses for himself and neither does Schrader. While this definitely doesn’t fall into the excellent category, it is a thoughtful adult drama, with a tremendous performance at its center.
Narvel Roth is a passionate horticulturalist who takes care of a garden owned by a wealthy socialite. When his boss forces him to bring on her grandniece as an apprentice, he begins to wonder about the life he has carefully crafted.
I tried not to word that synopsis too strongly because I don’t want Master Gardener (106 minutes, minus the end credits) to sound more exciting than it is. The concepts are big, but the “action” is very small. The plot is thin and there is nothing showy here. Significant developments either take place offscreen or in the protagonist’s mind. There are no grand gestures or statements. Schrader makes his points through the central relationship, which is actually the weakest part of the movie. This is not entirely successful, yet Schrader’s sincerity moves it along.
Joel Edgerton plays Narvel as a man who strives for contentment because he doesn’t think he ever deserves to be happy. He does truly love his work; however, the closest he gets to human companionship is his boss, Norma, who treats him like he’s her property (Sigourney Weaver does what she can as a one-dimensional entitled, controlling, jerk). Edgerton keeps his emotions inside because Narvel keeps himself inside. He leads a solitary life, where no one can glimpse the real him. At this point, Narvel doesn’t even know who that is. Edgerton is great in the moments where he pontificates about plants, showing an appreciation of life that you wouldn’t expect from such a closed-off man. He is pretty impressive in a role that could have been a statue in other hands.
Sadly, the most glaring issue with Master Gardener is the way Schrader has chosen to redeem his main character. There will be a couple of mild spoilers in the next paragraph, so be warned.
Stop reading now if you don’t want to know that Narvel’s secret is…
he used to be a dangerous neo-Nazi. He no longer holds those beliefs, but he will always have been that man. His boss’s grandniece, Maya, who he develops a bond with, is biracial. She also has some personal baggage that Narvel decides he has to help her with (a damaged man “saving” a troubled younger woman is a recurring theme for Schrader). A white (former) racist finding redemption by caring for a biracial person may be too simplistic for comfort. Though Schrader’s intentions seem to be good, the scenes where Maya learns Narvel’s truth are a little uncomfortable, treating her as a symbol more than as her own person.
Okay, spoilers over.
While Master Gardener uses material that will be incredibly familiar to those well-acquainted with Paul Schrader’s filmography, it is intriguing to see how he is grappling with this stuff at this late stage of his career. He covers provocative ground here, with his trademark ambiguity. Plus, he gets noteworthy work out of Joel Edgerton. It is slow-paced, perhaps overly contemplative and does not fully hit its mark on the transformative powers of life and love. Still, even if it isn’t near the level of First Reformed, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, I am glad I saw it.
3 out of 5
Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth
Quintessa Swindell as Maya Core
Sigourney Weaver as Norma Haverhill
Directed and Written by Paul Schrader