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film review
  • Master Gardener
  • Written and directed by Paul Schrader
  • Starring Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Quintessa Swindell
  • Classification N/A; 107 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres May 19

Critic’s Pick

Every time that Paul Schrader releases a new film, so the rumour goes, his distributor begs him to stay off Facebook.

It is on that social-media platform where the celebrated screenwriter of Taxi Driver and The Last Temptation of Christ tends to go off, even though he is only using it as it is intended: to espouse the kind of unfiltered opinions about politics, culture and commerce you might hear from your own seventysomething dad, ie. the demographic of user who still considers Facebook to be the public square. (A recent Schrader FB highlight: “The Oscars mean less each year. The reasons for this are clear: the need for revenue compounded by debt carried by the museum and lowering film revenues and the scramble to be woke.”)

What does this have to do with Schrader’s latest project, the Joel Edgerton-led thriller Master Gardener? Not all that much, until you consider just how instructive it can be to weigh one storyteller’s cinematic work – carefully considered enough to go through layers of development, and made in collaboration with myriad other craftspeople – against their one-off social-media rants. Because as amusingly brusque and off-message and ultimately disposable as Schrader’s spur-of-the-moment online presence can be, his art is something else entirely. Like many of his films, Master Gardener is a complex and layered thing that is sturdily resistant to quick, dirty, in-and-out discourse. In its ideas and execution, it has the weight of a million Facebook posts.

Open this photo in gallery:
MASTER GARDENER follows Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), the meticulous horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens. He is as much devoted to tending the grounds of this beautiful and historic estate, to pandering to his employer, the wealthy dowager Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When Mrs. Haverhill demands that he take on her wayward and troubled great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as a new apprentice, chaos enters Narvel’s spartan existence, unlocking dark secrets from a buried violent past that threaten them all. Courtesy of VVS

Master Gardener follows Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), the meticulous horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, which is owned by the wealthy dowager Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver).Bonnie Marquette/Courtesy of VVS

For its first half-hour, Master Gardener also appears to be a stark departure for the filmmaker. Introducing the horticulturalist Narvel Roth (Edgerton), Schrader’s film seems to be a straightforward character study of a gentle man who finds peace through tending to the soil of Gracewood Gardens, a sprawling estate owned by the wealthy widow Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). But soon enough, Roth’s grimy past is revealed, putting the movie firmly in the territory of such recent Schrader works as The Card Counter and First Reformed – this is another tale of a tortured soul trying his very best to bury the darkness.

Like the tainted leads of those films – plus, in a way, Schrader’s original anti-hero, Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle – Roth tries to keep his mental state in check by putting pen to paper, hoping that his diary alone will be the keeper of his secrets. Naturally, no book can bear the guilt tearing Roth’s life in half, and soon he is slipping outside the gates of Gracewood Gardens and into the wider, more dangerous world. Ostensibly, Roth is trying to help the recovering drug addict Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who he’s been tasked with training to garden by Norma. But really he’s seeking a taste of his old life, and the thrill of such danger threatens to ruin everything that he has spent years burying deep in Gracewood’s soil, so to speak.

Muted in tone and stylized with the kind of zero-frills aesthetic that has marked Schrader’s recent work, Master Gardener is not a remotely slick or smooth ride. There is a start-and-stop reticence to its dialogue, a sleepiness to its story and a sometimes exaggerated sense of play to its performances, as if the actors were asked to blunt their best instincts (Weaver is especially guilty here). But in Schrader’s strong, meditative hands, everything gels together to create an entrancing work that is serious and, very nearly, profound.

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Edgerton gets the best deal here, asked to play a man who is haunted by things he cannot change and still somehow asked to sacrifice more. When Roth gets the opportunity to grab a hold of one moment of brief pleasure with Maya, it is enough to make you forgive the character’s monstrous history – and even then, Schrader doesn’t make the proposition easy, unafraid to ask his audiences the difficult questions.

Even when Master Gardener – whose title doubles as a nicely sick joke, once you learn Roth’s back story – approaches its final act, the tension that Schrader has left to simmer all movie long doesn’t boil over so much as continue to hiss. This is restrained, careful, even tender storytelling. In other words, not for the Facebook crowd.

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