THE STORY – A meticulous horticulturist is devoted to tending the grounds of a beautiful estate owned by a wealthy dowager. When he’s told to take on her troubled great-niece as an apprentice, his life is thrown into chaos and dark secrets from his past emerge.
THE CAST – Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell & Esai Morales
THE TEAM – Paul Schrader (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 97 Minutes
In this age of tentpole superhero films liberally giving out Easter eggs and winking references to their dedicated fandoms, it can be easy to assume that these are the only types of movies offering similar indulgences. Yet, in the very first frame of “Master Gardener,” a staple of writer-director Paul Schrader makes an appearance. The protagonist writes his thoughts in a notebook as a voiceover drones on about the text. This is such a well-known trait of Schrader at this point in his career that to open this film with it is almost comical. At the same time, it also is a perfect establishment of what this endeavor will be. The audience is completely primed for another dive into a world of characters with a complicated moral compass thrust into situations that reveal their true emotional states. It’s familiar territory, but there is much to appreciate in this exploration, despite some unfulfilled potential towards its finale.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is the lead horticulturist for the Gracewood Gardens estate in Louisiana. He is meticulous and supremely dedicated to his craft, taking great care to ensure that he and his staff attend to the flowers for the upcoming annual exhibition. He reports back to the property’s owner, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), who looks to him with both a lustful eye and stern authority. She approaches him with the proposition to mentor her great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who has come to the grounds attempting to escape a troubled past. The relationship between Maya and Narvel exposes his own wounds and the brash decisions he has desperately tried to leave behind. Yet, this bond forces those demons back out, and the consequences must be reconciled before it’s too late.
As mentioned, there is an immediate sense that one is being plunged into the worldview of Schrader’s characterizations that have become recognizable iconography. While some may find this repetitive, he still manages to create an intriguing atmosphere in which somber contemplations carry an internalized weight. The conversations are sharply focused on their intent to exchange the niceties that cover up the insidious resentment until the façade can no longer hold and the venom is deployed. What’s presented is a quiet tone that settles on a specific area. Still, within this space, there is a compelling analysis of the delicate dance individuals must conceal in order to profit from one another. Even though “Master Gardener” is not as daring as his previous work, Schrader infuses an alluring aura into this material that makes it fascinating to witness.
Unfortunately, this captivating essence is not maintained throughout the runtime. For as interesting as these people are, there is a certain balance to their dynamics that keeps them as more striking figures. When the scope of the narrative shifts outside the walls of the grounds, taking Narvel and Maya on their own journey together, the momentum halts to a crawl, and the pacing suffers as well. A large reason for this is the attempt to manifest a more romantic connection between the two, which is primarily unearned through both the text and the chemistry shared by the two actors. It stands as an example of another overarching issue: that the film lacks a natural progression in its storytelling. No matter how stimulating, every sequence has difficulty building upon the other to authentically raise its stakes and invest in these individuals’ plights. When such a significant catharsis lies at the feet of a banal couple, it severely limits the impact one can muster.
Edgerton has always provided an engrossing screen presence that can embody brooding intensity and warm charm. The former is definitely more on display here, but he takes up the mantle of this well-known archetype and still manages to infuse the character with a sense of mystery that makes for an attractive figure to dissect. The same is not entirely present in Swindell’s portrayal, a more pedestrian performance that satisfies the necessities but nothing more extraordinary beyond that. Weaver is by far the standout, able to throw icy cold barbs wrapped up in the veneer of elitist respectability. She is completely transfixing in her open resentment that still yearns for these connections. There is no doubting her villainy, but it is a commanding performance that Weaver brilliantly renders.
Much of “Master Gardener” feels like being back in conversation with a recognizable friend who may not have changed the topic of conversation but who always knows how to draw one in with their recognizable tales. Indeed, Schrader operates in familiar spaces yet again but can still manage to draw some provocative portraits. He casts his gaze upon a world that values both creation and destruction, death and rebirth, and the deep passions that drive personal evolution. It’s a contemplative study that is quite invigorating until the conclusion loses nearly all of its goodwill. Still, despite a shift in focus toward far less interesting aspects, the film finds an enticing rhythm to operate within, helmed by a collection of good performances, chief among them being Weaver. One may become occasionally restless, but the results are nonetheless beguiling.