- Director: Paul Schrader
- Writer: Paul Schrader
- Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell
Stop me if you’ve seen this one before: a hollow shell of a man, sitting alone in a mostly empty room, writing in a journal, accompanied by a voiceover narration. Yes, you’re watching a Paul Schrader film – more specifically, you’re watching Master Gardener, the third film in Schrader’s unofficial “man in a room” trilogy. The first was the excellent First Reformed, starring Ethan Hawks and dealing with a man’s crisis of faith in a doomed world. The second was 2021’s The Card Counter with Oscar Isaac as a gambler hiding from the world and his past. Now, with Master Gardener, Joel Edgerton stars as a man caught between his regretful past and his future.
“Gardening is a belief in the future. A belief that things will happen according to plan.” Such is the thesis statement of Narvel Roth (Edgerton), the titular gardener, who oversees the botanical gardens of Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a wealthy heiress. He takes great care of his plants, and molds a rigid lifestyle for himself around them. We get the sense that Harvel is at home amongst the plants, even if he backed into the job by accident. There’s an order to them, and a simplicity that requires a deep understanding. Norma suggests that her grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) learn his trade as his apprentice so that she may, one day, take over for him. After making some poor life choices, Maya’s mother has recently died and she’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, so Norma sees the opportunity to right the ship before it can veer off course.
Schrader has always excelled at writing screenplays that deal with opposing themes, and Master Gardener’s is best served when it leans into the past versus the future. Without spoiling any details, we learn that Narvel only chose his profession to get away from his past life as part of a hateful group of people. Edgerton plays into Harvel’s inner turmoil perfectly; he’s stoic and soft-spoken but it doesn’t take much for him to snap. Sigourney Weaver almost steals the show as Norma, an acid-tongued boss who doesn’t exactly welcome Maya with open arms, despite their blood relation.
Surprisingly, Master Gardener is perhaps Schrader’s most romantic of his recent trilogy, especially in its second half, when Harvel and Maya go on the road together. Edgerton and Weaver are the more established presences, but Swindell holds her own in every scene, and she has palpable chemistry with Edgerton. Don’t be surprised if you see her in bigger roles in the future. Though for every step forward with the film’s screenplay, it takes a step back with some regrettable dialogue here and there, and a metaphorical sequence that could have used a second pass.
I won’t dispute that Paul Schrader can be an acquired taste, so if you were turned off at the aforementioned recent films, you likely won’t find any revelations within this one. Indeed, while Edgerton’s performance and the themes within Master Gardener kept me invested, I don’t know if it will resonate in the same way that First Reformed or The Card Counter did. Still, even with the occasional miscalculation, Schrader’s film is still full of worthwhile, entertaining ideas.
Master Gardener screened as part of the 2023 Indy Film Fest. The film will be available in theaters nationwide on May 19.
- Likely none. Though Schrader is a well-established entity in the film world, the film’s best hope is a Best Original Screenplay nomination, which was the lone nom for First Reformed.