After a slight lapse with 2021’s subpar The Card Counter, writer/director Paul Schrader returns to solid, provocative form in this captivating character study of an emotionally detached horticulturalist with a dark past who is forced to reconnect with traits he once embraced, and now hates, to save someone he loves. On paper, Master Gardener’s plot can easily be streamlined into a sentence long synopsis but Schrader’s film, like it’s protagonist, is enriched with depth and complexity.

An electrifying Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, the master gardener of the title who works for wealthy dowager/land owner Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). In the run up to her annual charity auction, Norma asks Narvel if he could take on her great niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice to help with the extra work. Narvel reluctantly agrees but soon finds himself bonding with Mia, who also has a troubled past that she is trying to escape from. When Mia’s comes back to haunt her, Narvel must utilise his discarded skillset (and we’re not talking about hedge trimming) to help her.

Paul Schrader’s a dab hand at crafting cold, quiet and complex characters who just about get by under the guise of sanity i.e. Ethan Hawke’s buttoned down Reverend Ernst Toller from First Reformed, and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle. Schrader’s latest, Narvel Roth, is the type you can imagine keeps faded tattoos as a form of punishment to remind him of the person he once was, at a time when he wore them with pride.

Schrader meticulously draws dialogue from Roth, enticing viewers via ingenious writing, directing and Joel Edgerton’s thrilling performance. Edgerton relays with a sunken husk and restraint to rivet, and augment scenes with palpable foreboding (“I thought you should know I was once someone else. Someone raised to hate,”) ensuring revelations and plot bombshells land with maximum impact. It is also the characters’ conflicts and dynamics which combine and guide the narrative so it flows around displaced flashbacks.

From the opening credit/split screen sequence featuring flowers and plants budding to a stunningly ambient, evocative score by Devonté Hynes, Master Gardener’s components enrich with a wonder similar to how Narvel must feel for his work, salvation and floral displays. Synergies between sound and screen are one of Schrader’s film’s key strengths but even though it isn’t as refined as First Reformed, its defects are mechanical and almost superfluous in how they inadvertently compliment, while deplorable white supremacy aspects are carefully contextualised to strike in accordance with complex character development.

Aforementioned flashback sequences jar and fragment to make Master Gardener sometimes seem like a sequel to film that doesn’t exist, but they are dark, explosive and show sides of Narvel that augment the character, and our perception of him. Even though Schrader has crafted similar protagonists in the past, they constantly captivate to the point where you don’t want him to deviate too much from what we know he does so well. Edgerton and Roth are no exception as both real and fictional frontliners to this powerful and provocative return-to-form for Schrader, and one that should be revered alongside his past masterpieces.

Master Gardener
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Daniel Goodwin
Daniel Goodwin is a prevalent film writer for multiple websites including HeyUGuys, Scream Horror Magazine, Little White Lies, i-D and Dazed. After studying Film, Media and Cultural Studies at university and Creative Writing at the London School of Journalism, Daniel went on to work in TV production for Hat Trick Productions, So Television and The London Studios. He has also worked at the Home Office, in the private office of Hilary Benn MP and the Coroner's and Burials Department, as well as on the Movies on Pay TV market investigation for the Competition Commission.
master-gardener-reviewA powerful, provocative return-to-form for Schrader, and one that should be revered alongside his past masterpieces.