Master Gardener is the latest from writer/director Paul Schrader. That name sounds familiar, where have I heard that before? *checks IMDb* Oh yeah, he made The Card Counter. That makes entirely too much sense.
Both movies star lead actors — namely Joel Edgerton in Gardener and Oscar Isaac in Counter — who’ve gained some degree of mainstream recognition, but still lacked a powerhouse starring vehicle. Both actors play quiet and withdrawn men running from dark and secret lives of unspeakable violence until they’re inevitably forced to confront their pasts. Both films incorporate long brooding voice-over monologues that use the protagonists’ respective professions to comment on the proceedings and offer thematic metaphors.
That said, it makes a huge aesthetic difference that Counter mostly took place in casinos and seedy motels, while Gardener is set against a backdrop of flowers. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take it from the top.
Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, lead horticulturist of the prestigious Gracewood Gardens, a family institution owned and operated by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). The staff is currently preoccupied getting all the gardens’ most beautiful flowers prepped for some huge charity auction that never actually plays any direct part in the plot because Narvel is confronted with a totally different problem in the opening minutes.
Enter Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Norma’s recently orphaned great-grandniece. Maya’s mother was the family black sheep, known for indulging in illegal narcotics. I might add that Maya is biracial, and while it’s never outright stated that Norma and her family are a bunch of wealthy white racists, let’s just say that it’s strongly implied.
Anyway, Maya is now in her early twenties and without anyplace to go. Thus Norma obligingly takes in her great-grandniece and hands her off to Roth, hoping he can train her to be a gardener. And surprisingly, Maya takes to the gig pretty well. Everything seems well and good, except that Roth, Maya, and Norma each have their own little quirks and oddities that keep adding up to suggest something else going on under the surface.
This movie is all about the slow burn. There are huge tracts of the film in which all the real action and drama is hidden in between the lines. The good news is, we’ve got Edgerton, Weaver, and Swindell on hand, all of whom are more than talented enough to layer so many hidden meanings into their line deliveries. In particular, Weaver deserves great credit for playing a character who could flip from “kindly old grandma” to “stuck-up entitled bitch” and back again on a dime. Meanwhile, Edgerton (as with Oscar Isaac before him) proves remarkably adept at playing a stoic enigma with such depth and intelligence that it’s a genuinely compelling mystery as to what makes him tick. As for Swindell, it speaks volumes that they’re relatively new to the game and still matching Edgerton and Weaver pound for pound.
Credit is also due to Paul Schrader, who shows remarkable aptitude for pacing out the reveals and hints in such a way as to keep the audience hooked. Of course, it certainly helps that we’ve got all this beautiful floral scenery to tide us over in the meantime.
Another potential issue is the lack of any comic relief. We get a few sweet romantic moments, we see the joy the characters take in their gardening work, and that’s pretty much all the levity we ever get. I personally didn’t mind all that much, given how deep and compelling the characters were, but this is still a violent crime thriller that goes to some horribly dark places. (Let’s just say there’s a white supremacist subplot.) Going this dark without any kind of safety valve can be a significant ask for the audience.
And then comes the third act.
Without getting too deeply into spoilers or details, the third act is when the film’s themes finally come into sharp focus. The brooding thematic monologues had been present through the entire picture, but it wasn’t until the third act when I finally put it together that the film was always using gardening as a metaphor for life. Most notably, there’s one point early in the film when Roth posits that gardening is an act of faith in the future: The very act of planting and nurturing a seed presupposes that everything will work out and the plant will eventually blossom.
It wouldn’t be completely inaccurate to say that Roth is nurturing Maya and helping her to grow as he would with any of his flowers, but there’s more going on here. After all, it stands to reason that Roth and Maya would help each other grow past their respective baggage, whether they know it or not. Speaking of which, a huge part of gardening is in pruning and weeding, knowing which plants to pull and which branches to cut. That becomes a significantly tougher issue with people, whose flaws are often an intractably fundamental part of their identities. It’s even more of an issue when the weeds in question are themselves toxic individuals, and “weeding them out” could constitute a felony.
Master Gardener is a film that lives and dies on its subtlety, which paradoxically makes it a tough film to appropriately praise. The film is a slow burn, quiet and methodical, thoughtful and brooding, well-acted from start to finish. In other words, this picture is ideally suited as counter-programming against the summer blockbusters currently dominating the multiplexes.
You won’t be losing anything if you wait for home video — indeed, the multiplexes are so crowded with billion-dollar mainstream flicks, good luck finding a screen where Master Gardener is playing. But if you’re in the mood for something a bit quieter and more highbrow, this is your ticket.