By design, writer-director Paul Schrader’s three most recent films—First Reformed (2017), The Card Counter (2021), and now Master Gardener—constitute a loose trilogy entwined around the idea of male guilt. In all three cases, troubled men are at least partly redeemed by love. You can call that device corny. But perhaps that’s only because, in a landscape of fantasy franchises and action retreads, we’ve forgotten the deep pleasures of the romantic thriller, movies in which darkness and light reach toward each other with a fateful kiss.
Schrader’s long career is dotted with these thrillers, and he’s still among the best at making them. In Master Gardener, Joel Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, a somber horticulturist with a past rooted in racist hatred. He’s in charge of the lavish historic garden of rich uppity white lady Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), who one day informs him that he must give her headed-for-trouble grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a job. She also informs Narvel, in icy-crisp grande-dame tones, that Maya is of “mixed blood.”
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The less you know about Master Gardener going in, the better: tracing the trail of these characters’ secrets is part of the thrill. But it’s compelling for other reasons too. Schrader is alive to the electricity of actors, and Edgerton is crackling with it. His Narvel has the meaty face of a scrapper who’s lost a few fights but won many more; yet this is also a guy who can pick up a clod of moist earth and divine its essence by scent alone. Maya is drawn to him at the risk of letting her own guard down, and Swindell, as simultaneously inquisitive and all-knowing as a butterfly, plays that tension beautifully. If you’ve seen First Reformed and The Card Counter, you may wonder how Schrader can find anything more to say about this particular kind of masculine anguish, this feeling of culpability for either personal sins or more global ones. But there’s a fantasy element to Master Gardener that bolsters the movie’s convictions rather than weakening them. Can human beings really change? In Master Gardener they can, like a dying plant that one day turns to face the sunlight, suddenly knowing all that it’s been missing.
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