Writer/director Paul Schrader specializes in stories about men wrestling with their inner demons. From Hardcore to First Reformed to The Card Counter, that idea occurs throughout his work. Schrader’s latest, Master Gardener is among his very best. It’s also uncommonly optimistic – not that you’d know it right away.
Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, a soft-spoken horticulturist who works at Gracewood Gardens, an estate owned by rich dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). He does his job with great meticulousness. Occasionally, he does Norma, too. Theirs is not a romantic relationship. She demands intimacy from him, as if he’s indebted to her. Later in the picture, we discover why.
Norma asks Narvel for a favor. Her troubled biracial grand-niece Maya (Black Adam’s Quintessa Swindell) is looking to straighten out her life. She believes learning how to tend a garden would be beneficial and requests that he mentor the young woman. Narvel dutifully agrees. Maya turns out to be an eager student, although leaving behind a destructive way of life is not always easy. Narvel gets pulled into her situation, which threatens his arrangement with Norma.
I’m leaving out a major part of Master Gardener, even though doing so makes it difficult to explain what’s powerful about the movie. Narvel has a troubled past he’s trying valiantly to put behind him. Maya’s presence and the bond that develops between them makes him feel the shame of his sins more intensely than ever before. That, in turn, leads to a few questionable decisions. Once you learn his secret, it reveals an ugly truth about Norma, too.
Schrader builds drama on multiple levels simultaneously. On one, Narvel attempts to keep his past in the past. On another, he debates how much of it, if any, to disclose to Maya. On a third, the nature of the arrangement between Narvel and Norma is put in jeopardy, and we don’t know which is scarier – the thought of them falling out or the thought of them maintaining the status quo. The screenplay’s strength is in how it ties all these factors together, ensuring the outcome of one will significantly impact the others. Each new complication makes the emotional stakes for the characters higher.
Edgerton, a consistently excellent actor, has never been better than he is here. Taking a low-key approach to the character, he conveys Narvel’s understanding that escaping his past is impossible, making it vital to maintain the “new” version of himself. The actor subtly, harrowingly implies how certain confluences of events start to shake the structure he’s built for himself. It’s a marvelous performance. Weaver perfectly radiates repressed bitterness as Norma, and Swindell wins our hearts with the way she captures Maya’s vulnerability. This is easily one of the best-acted films of the year.
Master Gardener takes Narvel through the muck, yet still manages to offer a feeling of hope at the end. Schrader’s point seems to be that people can change and should be allowed to; they just shouldn’t expect the rest of the world to change with them because society’s ills are too ingrained. Of course, he begins and ends with Narvel drawing parallels between gardening and life. The words are insightful, as is the film itself.
out of four
Master Gardener is rated R for language, brief sexual content, and nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 51 minutes.