Master Gardener – movie review

Paul Schrader’s nihilistic films have often explored troubled men and outsiders with a violent past who are seeking redemption for their past deeds. Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is one such man, hiding from the demons of his past, making him a quintessential Schrader creation.

Roth is the chief horticulturalist tending to Gracewood Gardens, the sprawling gardens on the estate of Mrs Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy dowager. He is meticulous in his attention to detail, and he oversees a small staff that take care of the gardens. His philosophy is that the garden is a belief in the future and is a healing force. Roth is a former hitman for a white supremacist group – his body is covered in hateful tattoos – whose involvement with the fascist group ended when he turned informant. He has been living in witness protection under an assumed name for several years. He has also been romantically involved with Mrs Haverhill.

But then Mrs Haverhill asks Roth to take on her troubled niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as an apprentice, hoping to give her a sense of purpose and direction. But her past involvement with a nasty drug dealer known as R G causes some problems, and Roth reverts to his former skill set to rescue her. But as Roth and Maya also grow close, Mrs Haverhill becomes jealous and banishes the pair from the estate.

Like much of Schrader’s work, from the classic Taxi Driver through to the recent The Card Counter, the build-up for the drama is slow and measured and ventures into familiar territory before it erupts into controlled violence at the end. Master Gardener follows a similar narrative trajectory.

The performances of the leads are all terrific. Edgerton’s buttoned up performance is nicely understated and he imbues his stoic Narvel with a dour and tense quality, and his growing sense of unease is palpable. Weaver is suitably haughty and imperious and cold as the unhappy Norma. Sadly though there is a lack of chemistry between Edgerton and Swindell that makes their screen romance seem unlikely.

The film is nicely shot by regular cinematographer Alexander Dynan. Production designer Ashley Fenton (The Card Counter) brings a sense of rotting grandeur to the gardens and the Haverhill estate. The garden itself becomes a potent, if heavy-handed, metaphor for the themes of regeneration, growth and change.

Greg King

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