Written and directed by Paul Schrader and starring Joel Edgerton, Master Gardener is a provoking crime thriller that lacks chemistry.
Though officially a stand-alone movie, Master Gardener is definitely the third entry in a thematic trilogy. Paul Schrader’s last two films as writer/director, First Reformed and The Card Counter, both deal with similar themes in more or less the same style. Schrader has been a working filmmaker for almost 50 years and at this point has settled into a groove. But this is the first time in recent years that it truly feels like he is repeating himself and lacking something new to say creatively. So if you already saw Schrader’s The Card Counter, then you immediately have some idea about the shape and limitations of Master Gardener.
This time, our troubled “man in a room” protagonist harboring guilt over a violent and morally corrupt past is the bizarrely-named Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton, in a well-modulated career-best performance). Roth writes in his journal about horticulture, a subject in which he is an expert. He shares a strange relationship with his employer, Mrs. Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), who owns the estate where he lives and works. And his carefully-curated, rigid existence is thrown for a loop by the arrival of his new apprentice: Norma’s grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell).
From the first frame, this is obviously a Paul Schrader production, with mannered compositions featuring sparsely-dressed locations, stilted dialogue for characters with somewhat caricatured personalities, and familiar themes. Schrader loves asking, through these manicured scenarios that eventually spin off in one direction or another, if redemption is possible for leading characters who could be easily written off due to despicable actions that they are now trying to atone for.
Is redemption possible?
Here, that question gets most of its exploration through the relationship between Narvel and Maya, as they grow closer and find things out about one other that I won’t spoil here. This relationship should be where the film blossoms, but instead proves to be the crucial area where it wilts. Edgerton is excellent at playing the internally-conflicted Roth on his own, and in the uneasy scenes he shares with Weaver. But the way his scenes with Swindell’s Maya are written and depicted requires them to have some chemistry together, and in these interactions, Edgerton is flat as a board. Swindell does their best to sell Maya’s interest in him, but there’s never a convincing spark between the two characters.
Schrader has themes he wants to explore here that will be viewed by many as provocative, but as the film goes on it mainly proves to be shallow, resting so much of the film’s thematic movement on a completely unconvincing connection between the lead characters. Any moments that are meant to feel troubling, devastating, cathartic, or thought-provoking instead just feel like the flatly presented fantasies of the writer/director. He spends all his energy waggling his proverbial eyebrows, asking “what about this situation?” But then he forgets to give those situations the life of their own that they need.
Despite its attempts at romanticism and provocation mostly falling flat, there are still aspects of Master Gardener that retain some interest. Even with the low budget and limited settings in evidence here, Schrader clearly knows how to craft an engaging film. His technical crew are in fine form, with precise cinematography by Alexander Dynan, and an intriguing (though sometimes overly leaned-on) synth-based score by musician Dev Hynes.
Schrader clearly knows how to craft an engaging film
All three lead actors give memorable performances in different ways. Edgerton helps to amp up the torments of his character, Swindell brings charm and energy to the somewhat underwritten Maya, and Sigourney Weaver goes entertainingly over the top as the brittle Norma. This character ultimately proves to be the most troubling and the most interesting, with her fetishization of fascist iconography proving as troubling and unsettling in a few key scenes as the rest of the movie should have been.
The first act of Master Gardener features numerous scenes of flower-related discussion, all of which are gorgeous to look at and interesting to listen to. Some even turn out to be thematically relevant to the rest of the movie, most of which isn’t about flowers at all. Gardening becomes a two-sided metaphor, used at various points to reference concepts as opposed to each other as eugenics and personal redemption.
On the face of it, this is difficult material to pull off and potentially dicey or disturbing. Naturally, it’s of interest to Paul Schrader. This time, though, he finds less substance in these musings. Ultimately, this film is still better than Schrader’s willfully obtuse and cringeworthy Facebook posts, but compared to his other recent films, it doesn’t end up feeling as sophisticated as it should, either.
Master Gardener is now playing in theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
MASTER GARDENER - 5/10