Narvel (Joel Edgerton) is the head horticulturalist at Gracewood Gardens, owned by dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). One day, Norma tells Narvel that she has taken on her grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who has hit upon hard times, to be his apprentice. As they work together on the gardens, Narvel and the much-younger Maya soon start becoming romantically close, but a dark secret from his past threatens to ruin their budding relationship.
Master Gardener is the closing entry in Paul Schrader’s ‘Man in a Room’ trilogy (the other movies were First Reformed and The Card Counter), which tells stories of men with difficult pasts grappling with difficult feelings, who spend much of their time alone journaling in spartan quarters.
The first movie of the trilogy, First Reformed, was a subtle, searing masterpiece. Despite all the films have in common thematically, Master Gardener is its dead opposite.
The multifarious problems lie in Schrader’s awful screenplay. First of all, the dialogue is horrendous. It quickly seems apparent that the gardening profession was chosen purely for its metaphorical possibilities, with tortured ponderings on the nature of growth and seeds and weeds sprouting stiffly from the mouths of the whole cast. There’s such a stiltedness to all the dialogue, even the legendary Sigourney Weaver isn’t able to overcome its severe limitations and turn it into anything vaguely human-sounding.
Then there’s the movie’s bizarre ducking of its central question. Narvel’s terrible secret (this is revealed early) is that he’s a reformed white supremacist in witness protection – in a flashback, we see him shoot a Black man in cold blood as the man’s horrified wife and child look on. Master Gardener appears to want to question whether someone who committed such a heinous act is worthy of redemption; ‘redemption’ here being represented by a relationship with the biracial Maya.
In theory, that could be the set up for a provocative, thoughtful movie; in practice, the whole issue of his past is pardoned more easily than you might forgive a friend for turning up half an hour late to meet for coffee. It’s not even a case of an intense attraction burning its way through the most imposing of boundaries either – there’s so little chemistry between Edgerton and Swindell, some of their romance scenes are actually confusing. There’s not one moment when their relationship seems the slightest bit genuine (it doesn’t help that Maya is a depressingly underwritten cipher), and the place it all ends up is laughable.
And when you factor in the earlier part of the film, where we learn that Narvel and Norma have been in their own complicated entanglement, and that Norma is jealous of her grand-niece (how can a three-generational love triangle featuring a middle-aged former white supremacist, a young Black woman, and Sigourney Weaver be so utterly devoid of tension?), there becomes something strangely mesmerising about this determination to misfire on all cylinders. Master Gardener is not a good movie, but it sure is a fascinating one.