Paul Schrader has built a long and distinguished career on occupational metaphors. Taxi drivers, American gigolos, card counters — characters who represent something greater than their respective professions. They are souls trapped in corporeal realities, yearning for absolution. Master Gardener is the latest Schrader film to use this conceit, and while it’s low-key to a fault — fizzing when it should explode — it scratches an itch for thoughtful, philosophically rich cinema.
Master Gardener centers on Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a monk-like horticulturalist who leads a small team tending the grounds of a botanical garden. The owner of the garden, a well-heeled dowager named Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), is his benefactor and occasional lover. When she insists that Narvel take her headstrong grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) under his wing for the season, he dutifully initiates the young woman into the religion of plant care.
On paper, the opening act would befit a Hallmark original movie, but since this is a Paul Schrader film, suspense begins to ooze through the cracks like a deceptively simple setup. A perceptive audience might detect something slightly unsettling about the way Narvel’s hair is slicked to perfection, or how his shirt remains buttoned up to the chin. Pretty soon, we discover that his Zen-like demeanor and reverent devotion toward his profession conceal a dark past. He’s the classic “man in a room” wearing a mask, waiting for something to happen. Edgerton is well cast in this role, suppressing his vast reserve of masculine energy to create a character who seems ready to explode at the drop of a hoe. But he is essentially a spiritual being. Like practically all of Schrader’s protagonists since Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (which he penned), Narvel keeps a journal that reveals a soul wrapped in flesh, a philosopher with a criminal record.
Maya, though credibly played by Swindell, is a less plausible creation. A twentysomething whose troubled backstory threatens to destroy her present, she is required to pivot emotionally on a dime. Her burgeoning attraction to Narvel is blunted by a shocking revelation, only to change gears in the very next scene. Weaver fares slightly better as Narvel’s employer, an imperious woman of the world, controlled and controlling, vacillating between tenderness and rage. Her ambivalence toward her “mixed blood” grand-niece gives rise to potentially violent jealousy. How these tensions resolve may disappoint viewers spoiled on the high-stakes endings of First Reformed and The Card Counter, but Schrader keeps the suspense at low boil throughout.
If the whole is less than the sum of its parts, Master Gardener remains watchable, thanks largely to the confident, spartan construction and strong performances. Schrader is that rare intellectual filmmaker who delights in conceptually compelling characters and carefully built plots, and this latest construction has a pleasingly low-budget, hand-made quality that contrasts with the majority of mainstream American cinema. As a young critic-turned-filmmaker for whom a screening of Bresson’s Pickpocket forever changed the trajectory of his life, Schrader has embarked on a career-long search for a connection between his Christian past and his profane present. It is a privilege, if not always a pleasure, to participate in this search. This is a garden worth admiring.