Following First Reformed and The Card Counter, the final film in Paul Schrader’s redemption trilogy, Master Gardener, has much in common with its predecessors, being another stately study of a monastic man with a dark past who survives via ritual. Like The Card Counter’s Will Tell, the horticulturist of the title, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), lives quietly and stoically. He doesn’t draw attention, allowing himself only one cigarette a day and submitting himself to a nightly ceremony in the form of journal writing.
Here, in a classic Schrader voiceover, he catalogues the order and “belief in the future” that gardening brings and the plans he has for the grounds of his boss, Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy southern women whose colonial mansion, Gracewood, is a physical representation of her outlook. A starchy maven who summarily orders Narvel to sow his seeds literally and figuratively, Haverhill is used to getting exactly what she wants via her white privilege.
Her needs are challenged by the arrival of her grand niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a young woman she describes as “mixed blood” who has made some “bad choices”. Mrs. H may like the show of offering help to a relative living with drug addiction in the New Orleans projects, but she’s not impressed when the shoots of romance begin to show between Narvel and Maya.
The meticulous and mysterious Narvel has a violent past as a white supremacist which he keeps as covered as the Nazi hate tattoos that cover his body, yet he sees a kindred spirit in Maya. She, for her part, recognises and accepts the broken aspects of his make-up that reflect her own. But can the two be grafted together if Narvel’s secret is revealed, or if Maya turbulent life impinges on the calm of Gracewood Gardens?
Austerely written, directed, and performed, Master Gardener is a slow burn in terms of emotional payoff as characters discuss the smell of soil, the genus of roses and whether a slipper orchid will be ready for a charity auction. In a lesser actor’s hands, Narvel could be robotic, blank; but Edgerton brings both a haunted melancholy and a simmering physicality to the role – creating tension amid the hoeing as his tightly wound penitence threatens to uncoil.
He’s matched by both Weaver and Swindell as women on either side of the income divide (recalling Taxi Driver’s Betsy and Iris, perhaps). A scene in which all three have lunch and the imperious dowager seethes with spite is electric, Weaver conveying bitter nuance in the way she holds a wine glass and aims a barbed smile. Meanwhile, a joyous sequence involving blossoming flowers and trees is a delight, evoking the similarly optimistic Missouri garden-glow moment in The Card Counter.
Though it’s not Schrader’s finest work and requires political leaps of faith that can be compared to American History X and could be called simplistic, Master Gardener is still an auteur operating at the top of the league. It’s a classic ‘man in a room’ story that the writer/director so loves to tell; his expertise in sketching lonely men is naturally assured.
Master Gardener does not yet have a release date. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.