Master Gardener

Directed By Paul Schrader

Starring – Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell

The Plot – Deep within the lush grounds of Gracewood Gardens, horticulturist Narvel Roth (Edgerton) tends to more than just plants. With a meticulous hand and unwavering devotion, he’s created an idyllic sanctuary for his demanding employer, Mrs. Haverhill (Weaver). But when troubled great-niece Maya (Swindell) arrives seeking apprenticeship, Narvel’s perfectly cultivated life begins to unravel, unearthing secrets from a violent past that threaten to destroy everything he holds dear.

Rated R for adult language, brief sexual content and nudity

Master Gardener – Official Trailer | Directed by Paul Schrader | Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver – YouTube


Very few auteurs working today can effectively direct such a scintillating atmosphere to subjects that would otherwise be considered a bore to me, but Paul Schrader doesn’t underlook one of the many qualities he uses to furnish a scene or sequence, leading to a spell-binding seduction over his audience that keeps them enamored in the palm of his hands. From the picture perfect framing conveying deeper meaning in the many dynamics and internal feelings of the characters, to the ambiguity of the off-beat lighting, to especially the diverting dimensions of his indulging dialogue, everything here triggers a collective effort that wouldn’t be rendered as intoxicating if conjured by multiple visionaries, but Schrader’s beat often lends itself to the ear of one man, and one man alone, and that man here conveys a dark and forboding essence in the many colorful characters he candidly sifts through, unfurling their dark and devastating secrets like pedals on a flower that shed so effortlessly. For these characters, we’re given such capitvating turns from a trio of tantilizing talents in the form of Edgerton, Weaver and Swindell, who imbed a balance of mystique and humanity in ways that ultimately and often unfortunately define them. Edgerton could make a riveting engagement with a wet mop, but here he’s not asked to when given the character study and ultimately redemption arc of a flawed protagonist who is defined by the ghosts of his past in a world that doesn’t enable him to change. He’s not someone I found myself faithfully investing in as a person, however Joel’s burning intensities convey an unshakeable magnetism to his portrayal, enveloping him in the kind of curiosities that made his corresponding backstory such a treat to casually dig into. Weaver and Swindell aren’t half bad either, especially the former’s stoically stern demeanor to words that unapologetically undercut everyone she comes across, and the latter permeating an organic innocence to Maya that not only serves the integrity of her character well, but also magnifies the tragic aspect of a directionless youth with so many conflicts surrounding her potential. Aside from gritty performances, I found the pacing of the storytelling to be firmly persistent, despite Schrader’s slow-burn consistency, which I feel he had a hand in making universal. Part of what helps here is the correspondance of a backstory arc running alongside the one in real time, but the credibility of metaphoric-heavy overhead narration decodes the feelings of such a cryptically introverted character, drawing on botany as a way to convey insight into many human conditions. Lastly, and deserving of its own credit, the musical score here from first time Schrader collaborator Devonte Hynes permeates transfixingly with the kind of rich complexity in diverse tracks and ambitious instrumentals that are anything but conventional for the scenes they accompany. They’re so good and anything but meandering that they could effortlessly trigger clarity in the confines of character emotionality, enriching their usage by the professionalism in volume mixing that acts cohesively with the dialogue, instead of overriding it.


Though “Master Gardener” is easily Schrader’s best work since 2017’s “First Reformed”, some lack of diversity in his script structure does keep it from being among his best work of all time, with far too much familiarity in the concept lending itself to other written and directed efforts from the visionary. When you consider that this film centers around a flawed protagonist whose isolation factor in personal reflection helps ease the demons of the past that weigh on him so heavily, you start to conjure similarities to “First Reformed”, “The Card Counter”, “Taxi Driver”, or even “Bringing Out the Dead”, to name a few, and while still effectively compelling by the way he directs the hell out of every scene, it’s still a bit derivative in helping to keep Schrader’s growing as a writer. Beyond this, the relationship between Narvel and Maya, which so much of the film’s plot revolves around, doesn’t make a believer out of me in either its romantic entanglement or eventual direction, which had me supressing more than a few internal doubts that things would properly go down this way. For my money, their relationship would be better suited for protector and student, instead of blossoming lovers, especially since I don’t feel the chemistry between them is there, and the romantic sparks are the only element of the script that feel slightly undercooked and rushed, but when it does transpire to that direction, literal mentions and unshakeable comparisons to “Lolita” doesn’t leave the best taste in my mouth, morally, and I wish it all were kept student and teacher instead. Finally, while Schrader seamlessly and unstoppingly builds on the rising tension that eventually reaches piping hot levels of temperature, the pay-offs for such fall a bit too tame and underwhelming in execution, leaving the climax of the movie, as well as the reveal of a harbored secret of Narvel to Maya, flawed by forgettability. Considering this is Paul Schrader, you really expect things to get gruesomely visceral at any moment, and when they don’t, it wastes away the opportunity to give us the biggest insight into who Narvel was before he went into hiding.

“Master Gardener” isn’t the most original concept from Paul Schrader, but it is proof that the right nurturing hand always nurtures something scenically seductive for the surrounding garden. With a trio of tantilizing turns from Edgerton, Weaver and Swindell, as well as technical components that conjure something compellingly cathartic to the corresponding character study, the film articulates that people might be able to change, even if the ghosts of their past continuously haunt their future.

My Grade: 7/10 or B

4 thoughts on “Master Gardener

  1. This is another film I would never had given a chance if I had not read your review. I look forward to not only the soundtrack, but also to watch Weaver. She is one of my favorite actresses. Thank you for another inspiring review.

  2. I’m not sure if it’s because I was kind of underwhelmed by The Card Counter or that I just wasn’t following this film all that much since it didn’t grab my attention, but I’m kind of burnt out on Paul Schrader movies. I’ve yet to see any work from him that is on the same level as First Reformed. While this does sound like a good movie due to deft direction and excellent performances that you talked about, the story isn’t grabbing me all that much and I’m not in a rush to drive 30+ minutes to see a movie that I don’t have much anticipation. Maybe one day I’ll check it out, but I hope your review compels others to seek it out because you do give plenty of perfectly explained reasons to give it a shot.

  3. Well I would say this review was extremely illustrative of the amount of love you pour into the reviews. The opening of your positives section and the picture you painted of the characterization used in the film was amazing. Thank you for the review and you may have earned the film a watcher from the review.

  4. I’ve never heard of this, but I’m a HUGE Edgerton fan, and this sounds like an amazing role for him, so I’ll have to check it out.

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