A man sits at a desk, writing in his journal while the camera circles him. It’s an image that’s been repeated in every film of Paul Schrader’s recent loose trilogy. The three films are connected by this image and by the fact they are about lonely men afraid to connect while grappling with the sins of their past and dealing with a calamity in their current lives. In First Reformed (2017) the story was about a priest, in The Card Counter (2021) a gambler, and, in his latest, Master Gardener, it’s a horticulturist with a trove of secrets.
Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, as meticulous and orderly in his appearance and mannerisms as the gardens he tends. His clothes and his room are extremely tidy and organized, even the way he walks and talks is precise. This is a man who disappears within an organized life, trying to give away nothing. Yet something is off, judging by the nightmarish flashes from his past he keeps experiencing. Enter Maya (Quintessa Swindell), the grand niece of his haughty and imperious employer Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), who becomes the catalyst that unravels his careful existence.
Master Gardener supposedly has a contemporary setting. Yet it feels out of time, or belonging to a long gone era. Part of that is the profession of its lead character, and part is Mrs. Haverhill. Both seem like relics from another time and place. She’s as orderly in her life as Narvel with an added notion of always demanding perfection. The way Weaver plays her you could see her overseeing a plantation in the American South or a colonial English farm in a land far away from the British Isles.
Haverhill’s dynamic with Maya is a peculiar one. She cares enough about her to provide her with a job, but not enough to actually talk to her. She calls her “mixed blood” with a contempt that belies her prejudice. When they finally meet on screen, it’s a scene that sizzles with so much pent up anger because of a shared, frustrating family history—or as Haverhill calls it, “the muck of the past.” It’s a conversation that proves Schrader’s facility with heightened language that feels both organic to the characters and grand enough to befit a tall tale.
Haverhill is by far the most fascinating character in Master Gardener. Neither Narvel Roth—despite that bizarre name—nor Maya hold a candle to her. Maya is more of a plot device than an actual character. She’s there to jump-start the plot and create chaos for Narvel and Mrs. Haverhill. Roth’s past, once revealed, is not that intriguing nor psychologically complex. It’s a past full of violence and regret but disclosed in a haze of shaky plot contrivances that do not build on the precise introduction of the character.
Edgerton imbues Roth with an otherworldly steadiness. Aided by a hunky and imposing frame, he’s believable as a man who can turn violent at the drop of a hat. He elicits an electric charge in Weaver and their interactions crackle with intensity. The actors are in sync with each other and telegraph the shared history of their characters with clarity. Weaver, in particular, demonstrates her agility with Schrader’s dialogue, making a meal out of words like “impertinent” or “obscene.”
Schrader is well known for his preference for austere filmmaking and Master Gardener is no different. He frames his actors with no frills in mostly medium shots that allow them the space to inhabit the characters. As he did in The Card Counter he allows one fantastical scene where the screen becomes flooded with color and the characters’ emotions overflow. That flourish only emphasizes the modesty of the rest of the film. A modesty that’s appropriate for Narvel Roth and his unadorned world.
Coming as the third entry in Schrader’s trilogy, Master Gardener fuels talk of diminishing returns. The film comes from the same filmmaker and has common links to its predecessors—no matter how skeleton—in character and structure. And so it must be compared to them. While it doesn’t fare well in comparison, Master Gardener still has enough unique characteristics and performances to stand out as a fine film. It’s just the least successful in this particular trilogy.
Master Gardener opens in theaters May 19