Film review: Master Gardener

Auteurs are defined as filmmakers whose ‘individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp’. Paul Schrader’s films have always dealt in redemption and masculinity but in recent years, he has almost developed his recurring themes into a genre of their own. The final instalment of his thematically linked contemporary trilogy, following on from 2017’s First Reformed and 2021’s The Card Counter, is psychological indie thriller Master Gardener. The story centres around Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a horticulturist who works for wealthy widow Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) by tending to her picture-esque Louisiana estate. When her troubled great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) comes to stay and becomes Narvel’s apprentice, he is forced to reckon with his own dark, dangerous past.

Retracing the pattern of his aforementioned pictures, the narrative sees our protagonist experience an existential crisis whilst grappling with his innermost demons. He sits at a little desk jotting down notes in a journal, appears to have a saviour complex, meticulous in his routines, and the film invites us into his thought process via the character’s detailed internal monologue. It could be argued that his returning concept is wholly unoriginal and yet there’s something so intriguing and explorative about his methodical approach to storytelling. In contrast to the flowery presentation of the gardens on display, Schrader shoots in a very muted, matter-of-fact fashion, illustrative of Roth’s discipline. “Seeds of love grow like the seeds of hate” states Narvel, passionate about his craft, a literal and metaphorical symbol of his personal growth.

 The latest in the director’s ‘God’s lonely man’ mould, Edgerton shoulders the weight of guilt in his nuanced portrayal. Prim and proper in his appearance with a sharply cropped cut to boot, he exudes structure and self-control in his deliberated demeanour. Through jarring flashbacks, we see glimpses of the past he is trying so desperately to hide, and this struggle is communicated very well in the performance. Swindell is equally excellent as Maya, who is far more upfront and open about the difficulties she is facing. She’s the chaos to his calm and while their stark differences bring them closer, the smart pacing of the developing friendship creates unsettling tension. She is unaware of the history that we, as an audience, have been let in on, giving a sense of twisted complicity in the secret he harbours.

He may be too far set in his ways to be winning over any doubters at this point, but Schrader confidently serves up a satisfying slab of more-of-the-same cinema for his supporters to devour. Master Gardener marks a fine, cultivated finish to his triptych of tales, with a quietly brilliant central turn from Edgerton at its root.

Master Gardener will be available in UK cinemas from 26th May


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