Certain things have little to no resonance for an average person but may contain a great deal of meaning for someone else. It’s easy to walk through a beautiful garden without appreciating or comprehending the hard work that goes into its upkeep and its very creation, planning carefully for which flowers will eventually bloom and how they can best develop and thrive in the surrounding climate. There can also be a degree of therapy involved in the maintenance of a vast garden, a helpful distraction from a problematic past and a healthy outlet about which to obsess. Master Gardener tells the story of three different people whose lives converge around a shared passion that covers for something they have each repressed.
Narvel (Joel Edgerton) is the committed lead horticulturist at the sprawling Gracewood Gardens, bringing a great deal of seriousness and precision to his job. He has a long history with the owner of the estate, Norma (Sigourney Weaver), who informs him that she is inviting Maya (Quintessa Swindell), the grand-niece she barely knows, to become his apprentice so that she might eventually take over the estate. Maya comes from a different world than the old-fashioned, narrow-minded Norma, and Narvel attempts to bridge the gap as he takes Maya under his wing while struggling with a dark past of his own filled with hate and violence.
Master Gardener is the latest film from writer-director Paul Schrader, whose recent works include The Card Counter and First Reformed. This story begins from a less isolated point, with its protagonist managing a staff of people and able to communicate without much trouble. But, like the main characters of those two films, Narvel has much misery to remember due to his early years spent as an active member of a white nationalist group. He has left that world behind, but as Schrader’s films often express, violence always has a way of catching up with people and they can never truly be rid of it.
Narvel’s outlook on life and his commitment to the garden are interestingly contrasted by Norma, who callously describes Maya as “mixed blood” and treats her as ungrateful and undeserving of this special privilege and opportunity her great-aunt is affording her. Narvel seems ashamed by the hateful tattoos that cover his body, while Norma would likely applaud herself for being open to forward-thinking ideas that her parents and ancestors would never before have considered, even if she only professes to champion them. Maya similarly doesn’t think much of her relative, able to perceive her haughtiness from the fact that Norma won’t even meet with her until Narvel has adequately trained her to be a suitable heir.
Edgerton has tackled a number of roles related to bigotry in the past in projects such as Boy Erased, The Underground Railroad, and, on the other side as a victim of that concept, Loving. He mostly wears a steely expression and masks Narvel’s true emotions in this role, which makes his performance all the more effective. Weaver taps into the heritage of her character and her desperate attempt to maintain a hold on what she has always had. The true standout of the film is Swindell, who approaches Maya with a natural touch, one that finds her intrigued enough by her relative’s offer of employment but doesn’t put value into her family history or feel that she is in need of some kind of saving from an ordinary life. Swindell and Edgerton are particularly compelling in their shared scenes, navigating their characters’ journeys as other people in their lives refuse to allow them to exist and endure peacefully. Master Gardener finds meaning in their interactions, extracting pieces of humanity from within the overarching darkness buried under a beautiful cultivation of nature.
Following its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival, Master Gardener will be released by Hanway Films.