If you’ve seen one Paul Schrader film, you haven’t necessarily seen them all.
The opening shot of Master Gardener has Joel Edgerton as the enigmatic Narvel Roth at a desk writing in his diary. This is practically a stock Schrader moment as seen in his recent directed films like First Reformed and The Card Counter as well as the film that began Schrader’s legacy as a screenwriter, Taxi Driver.
We know Roth likes to write but the rest of Master Gardener reveals facets of his life that make him and the audience uncomfortable.
Roth oversees a tourist garden at a Louisiana plantation owned by wealthy Southern belle (Sigourney Weaver being devastatingly wicked). He’s asked to mentor her estranged grand niece Maya (a peerless performance from newcomer Quintessa Swindell).
There are so many nods to gardens of yore. At times Master Gardener overwhelms with the beauty of flowers and plants. In an early monologue (Roth voice over) informs that Colonial gardens were a combination of grocery store produce and a pharmacy. There’s another bit of musing about what mixture of natural oils make the best defense against aphids. Green thumbs are going to wish they were taking notes.
That’s in sharp contrast to the spine of Master Gardener, which suggests that tigers want to change their stripes.
In the first act an early reveal gives the impression that the master gardener once considered himself part of the master race. Roth, who always wears long sleeves, has Nazi tattoos all over his chest and back.
Does Roth have to return to his roots at some point to set the world back in balance?
As a horticulturist, Roth shows discipline and even wisdom and yet, his life of solitude grates against his inner self. Maya and Roth soon start a relationship divorced from their previous paths.
As in any Schrader tale, there are some fireworks at the end but it’s not a violent winner-takes-all so much as a metaphoric weeding of the garden.
Master Gardener opens in theaters this week.