Movie Review: Smelling Dirt with Joel Edgerton in Paul Schrader’s Murky ‘Master Gardener’

Paul Schrader plants the seeds of an intriguing melodrama in his latest creation ” Master Gardener.”

Sigourney Weaver is a wealthy dowager with a stately name (Norma Haverhill), a large house and a dog she’s named porch dog. She also has a horticulturist (Joel Edgerton) in her employ who she occasionally calls on for extracurricular, indoor activities. There’s even a big charity auction coming up that she and the gardening staff are intensely focused on.

But this being a Schrader film (he wrote and directed), it is mostly window dressing. There even is a palpable (and, I’d imagine, intentional) artificiality to the whole endeavor, creating an unease that looms over the most mundane and superficially pleasant interactions. The ceremony never feels quite right. The house, though grand, is also sparse in its décor. It feels like a set — not a place that a real human being lives. We don’t even get to see the charity auction in full swing, never fulfilling Edgerton’s Narvel Roth (yes, Narvel) tease how much fun it is to “watch grown men in pastel pants outbid each other for a flower.”

This image released by Magnolia Pictures shows Sigourney Weaver in a scene from “Master Gardener.” (Magnolia Pictures via AP)

This story is about a man with a violent past who has been saved by the precision of gardening. Even if it’s not a perfect trilogy, it’s at least in dialogue with his recent films “The Card Counter” and “First Reformed,” both about solitary, tortured men whose professions double as metaphor. Actually, that’s true of most Schrader films. And it invites some memorable writing, mostly in voiceover, as Norvel opines and explains that “gardening is a belief in the future.”

But Narvel didn’t come into the world as a gardener, or Narvel for that matter — these are identities he adopted later in life. This dutiful, buttoned up green thumb has underneath his practical coveralls a body covered in telling tattoos and a memory full of racially motivated murders. He is reformed now, mostly, but the music gets ominous when the shirt comes off and he stares at his past in the mirror. Like any good gardener knows, he can try to manage nature but that only goes so far.

This image released by Magnolia Pictures shows Quintessa Swindell, left, and Joel Edgerton in a scene from “Master Gardener.” (Magnolia Pictures via AP)

The chaos factor comes in the form of Norma Haverhill’s great-niece, whose drug-addict mother has died and who she decides should apprentice with Narvel in the garden. Maya (Quintessa Swindell) quickly takes to gardening, clashes with Norma (who called her “mixed blood” and is reluctant to form a relationship) and falls for Narvel.

Before he started shooting the film, Schrader said he was thinking about a man torn between two women, one old enough to be his mother, one young enough to be his daughter.

“What would happen in ‘Taxi Driver’ if Cybill Shepherd and Jodie Foster went out to get coffee?” he asked.

This image released by Magnolia Pictures shows Joel Edgerton in a scene from “Master Gardener.” (Magnolia Pictures via AP)

That premise, while possibly interesting, is really only given one scene that’s not quite as revelatory as Schrader suggested. And it certainly does nothing with the idea of Narvel being torn — once the young one enters the picture, beyond one rejection out of decorum, you know exactly where Narvel has fixated his gaze. Does this fit in with the gardening metaphors? Is Maya’s mixed race supposed to be more meaningful because of his past? Are we really supposed to buy their connection or their ability to save one another? It’s a little murky.

This image released by Magnolia Pictures shows Joel Edgerton, left, and Quintessa Swindell in a scene from “Master Gardener.” (Magnolia Pictures via AP)

That kind of goes for the whole movie, which moves at a glacial pace even when it veers into thriller and revenge territory. But Edgerton is a sly and captivating performer, Weaver makes a meal out of every backhanded remark (and outfit), and Swindell, who is nonbinary, is a luminous presence.

Like a haphazardly planted garden, it’s lot of ideas that don’t seem to create anything terribly coherent but it has its individual pleasures nonetheless.

“Master Gardener,” a Magnolia Pictures release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for “brief sexual content, nudity and language.” Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.



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