Master Gardener

Paul Scharder sure knows how to plant this garden.

“Master Gardener” is the latest film from Paul Schrader, who knows characters and tension when he sees them. As demonstrated in “Taxi Driver,” “First Reformed,” and “The Card Counter,” he’s able to draw the audience in with mixed reactions on how things turn out and how he doesn’t follow the rules of specific genres. In this case, it’s a drama and a thriller that refuses to overlap one another.

Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth a former white supremacist, who becomes a horticulturalist with a skill in gardening. He thinks he can escape from his dark past, although he can’t have his tattoos removed. The tension grows thicker when his boss-the wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver)-assigns him to make her mixed-racial grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell from “Black Adam”) an apprentice.

The old lady expects big things for the upcoming flower show, and Narvel is the man to show her grand-niece the ropes. And this guy knows fresh soil when he sees and smells it. But this movie isn’t a training video on gardening nor is it an exercise in estranged families.

Here are some reasons.

The dowager is so unlikable that she doesn’t embrace the girl when she first arrives on her estate. She meets her for lunch, where they would exchange words, and then at another lunch, when the old lady calls her a “slut,” and the girl angrily leaves. Norma responds: “she’s just like her mother.”

She also fires Narvel when she finds out her grandniece tried to fool around with him, and the girl is also in danger from drug dealers whom she works for. He protects her, with the possibility of her finding out about his past. I can’t acknowledge how she really feels, considering that I’m white, but the tension by Schrader is provocative.

“Master Gardener” doesn’t exceed Schrader’s his best films, because parts of the story don’t flourish (pun intended), but his filmmaking really brings out the best and worst qualities of the characters. Narvel’s past is unforgivable, and yet, somehow, we want to see where he’s going in his life and how Maya connects with him.

Edgerton’s first-time collaboration with Schrader reminds me of how Robert De Niro worked with him “Taxi Driver” and how Oscar Isaac worked with him in “The Card Counter.” Edgerton has the kind of convictions and tone to really represent a Paul Schrader character, and he has the kind of character development we can like and hate, depending on Narvel’s his life choices.

Swindell is a revelation without succumbing to those estranged relative cliches, but rather represent her dislike for racists, even if they have changed their ways. Her character is able to take her time to process Narvel’s past, and yet, somehow, she sees something in him that makes her want to be with him.

And Weaver has the right age and costuming as an arrogant and unloving aunt, who also has a relationship with Narvel. And her chemistry with Edgerton is poignantly presented.

“Master Gardener” may not be a training video for people who want to learn how to garden, but it does share its passion on the side. And that applies to a magical scene when Narvel and Maya drive by bright, colorful flowers at night. It’s quite a hallucination, and the movie is pretty intoxicating, if not powerful.

Rating: 3 out of 4.

Now Playing in Select Theaters

Categories: Drama, Thriller

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