Synopsis: Narvel Roth is the meticulous horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, a beautiful estate owned by wealthy dowager Mrs. Haverhill. When she orders Roth to take on her troubled great-niece Maya as his apprentice, his life is thrown into chaos, and dark secrets from his past emerge.
Stars: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, Esai Morales, Victoria Hill, Eduardo Losan, Rick Cosnett, Amy Le, Erika Ashley, Jared Bankens, Cade Burk, DJames Jones, Matt Mercurio
Director: Paul Schrader
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (2/10)
Review: In his sixth decade working in motion pictures, writer/director Paul Schrader has seen his ups and downs in the movie business. From the early high of a one-two punch in 1976 of Taxi Driver and Obsession to the struggles in the early ‘90s to regain his voice, Schrader regained some traction in 2017, landing his only Oscar nomination with First Reformed. He followed that in 2021 with the well-received The Card Counter and has completed the triumvirate of stony-faced men giving major side eye in the posters with Master Gardener.
To say that Schrader’s latest finds him in the weeds is both a cheap pun and a thorny bouquet way of stating that this drama fertilized with thriller elements is a withered mess. Dry and brittle, it features the director pandering to his worst, most self-indulgent instincts and bringing down a good cast with him. It’s the type of film where a supposedly respectable, eloquent woman utters the phrase ‘tit cancer’ in the same breath she waxes poetic about an old black lab she’s named ‘Porch Dog’ because, you know, he sits on the porch. I’m getting a bit ahead of myself, however…
The opening of Master Gardener suggests that Schrader is back to his First Reformed ways of internalizing the emotional arc of a troubled soul and inviting the audience to watch how repressed feelings seep out in small doses over two hours. Sadly, that blasted ‘tit cancer’/ ‘Porch Dog’ scene happens (lines only Schrader would dare to write), and the illusion is broken almost as soon as it has begun. By that time, we’ve established Joel Edgerton (Boy Erased) as Narvel Roth, an enigmatic horticulturist employed on the estate of Norma, a mannered woman (Sigourney Weaver, The Good House) who has invited Roth into her gardens and, as we find out awkwardly, her bed.
Roth lives on the massive acreage, all the better to stay close to the plants, and keeps detailed journals about the precise interaction between flora and fauna – some that will parallel the twisty entanglements to come. Norma asks Narvel to take on her orphaned grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell, Black Adam) as a new apprentice, teaching the inexperienced teen how to make the garden grow. It isn’t long before the teacher becomes more than a little interested in the student, first taking on the role of protector from an abusive boyfriend, then an interventionist, and ultimately (cringe!) her savior.
The relationship between Narvel and Maya (as played by Edgerton and Swindell) is painfully chemistry-free, so when the script thrusts them together as lovers (not precisely a spoiler because you can see it coming a mile away) and tells you they have found a weird sort of affection you can’t fully accept it. Narvel is clearly the two decades older the actor Edgerton is over Swindell, and throw in some issues Narvel has with his absent teen daughter, and you have something gross to sort out on your own time. That’s the only fast-moving plot point in Schrader’s meandering film, which takes longer to get through than a stroll through an actual botanical garden.
Huge plot problems aside, the acting is disappointing too. Edgerton was on a roll with parts that allowed the Australian actor to push past the typical Hollywood leading action star mold and expand into something different. You can see where the appeal was to work with Schrader on a character with Narvel’s complexities (I’m deliberately leaving out a significant character detail that informs much of his actions). Still, it doesn’t fully come through in the execution. As a wealthy shrew who uses her money to control others, Weaver fares better because she’s adept at circumnavigating parts for women who tend to dismiss them outright. However, even she can’t acquit Norma from some very odd dialogue that sometimes makes her sound like she’s in 1920s Maryland and others as if she’s slumming it in 1997 Hoboken.
Schrader gets fed up with the Hollywood machine every few years, throws his hands up, and goes silent. Perhaps it’s time to take a breather again and sort out some of the problematic elements of Master Gardener that take it so awry. The icky romance (for real, so gross), the non-starter thriller aspects, and the dull flashback drama told in pieces that never come together to form a complete picture. It’s nothing shocking considering that Schrader has gone back to this older man/younger woman concept now dozens of times. Still, it is staggering that the director keeps writing the same film over and over again but can’t ever validate it as a worthwhile idea. This comes across as a first draft that no story editor got to before filming began. Skip it and go plant a tree instead.