Master Gardener fits as snuggly in writer-director Paul Schrader’s legacy of films about obsessive and isolated men as do pruning shears in the calloused hand of the film’s title character.
MASTER GARDENER ★ ★ ★ (3/4 stars)
For Narvel Roth, played with a masterfully attenuated internal roil by Joel Edgerton, the shears are his weapon of choice, whether battling back junipers or threatening to neuter some local roughneck drug dealers.
Like The Card Counter’s William Tell, First Reformed’s Ernst Toller, or the grandaddy of them all, Travis Bickle from the Schrader-scripted Taxi Driver, Roth is a solitary lost soul whose psyche shattered years ago amid a past built on violence and bad choices. Once again, this hero of sorts seeks to transcend his pain through a younger, purer soul. In this case, the key to his redemption is Maya (Quintessa Swindell), an orphan who is made his apprentice by Roth’s boss and occasional lover, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, at her most imperious and imposing).
Schrader follows his own modus operandi to such an exacting degree (yes, Narvel’s inner musings are captured in journals written atop a tiny desk that’s affixed with a solitary lamp and, yes, the poor guy sleeps on an unforgiving little cot that’s probably hell on his back) that the film can dip into self-parody. It turns out that without strong narrative thrust, marshaling the cinematic tradition of Robert Bresson to contemplate the nature of man’s limits and possibilities in the face of God’s simultaneous absence and ever-presence can feel an awful lot like gazing at one’s naval.
But the movie, like Narvel, is able to grasp redemption by the tips of its dirt-encrusted fingernails.
Vindication comes from a fully committed cast that shows such devotion to their director’s vision that you feel obligated to go on the ride with them—even when the film itself seems to be stuck in neutral.
It also arrives by virtue of the monk-like rigor of Schrader’s formal control and the sparse latticework of his images (cinematographer Alexander Dynan has been working with Schrader since 2016’s Dog Eat Dog), which beautifully supports the specificity of his language. It is so unnervingly intoxicating to listen to Edgerton describe, say, the binomial nomenclature of plants or the history of botanical gardens in the United States that you begin to wish the film focused less on spirits in turmoil in search of redress and more on the nuts and bolts of gardening.
Without the emotional reserve that Schrader has made the hallmark of his work as both a filmmaker and scholar, The Master Gardener would have been little more than a badly argued “third way” New York Times opinion piece. There are few things more ingratiating than trying to convince us that Narvel—a former hitman for a white supremacist gang covered with the same kind of Nazi tattoos found on the recent Allen, Texas mall shooter—deserves the benefit of the doubt.
But armed with Schrader’s meticulously measured consideration and restraint, Master Gardener isn’t an argument. Instead, it’s something more profound and necessary: it’s a meditation.
Eschewing the manipulated catharsis that, like an invasive species, strangles the emotional impact of so much Hollywood fare, Schrader asks us to consider nature’s ability to revive itself no matter how profoundly it has been put out of balance, and how that florid restoration can serve to guide us in the unending process of finding peace within our own broken selves.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.