Writing about Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” two years back at the Venice Film Festival, I noted that Schrader referred to it as one of his “man at a table” pictures. A year later, again in Venice, I saw “Master Gardener,” his new picture, just now seeing U.S. release. And here he leans into that trope even harder: after an elegant credits sequence using time-lapse photography to show beautiful flowers blooming, the very first shot of the picture is of lead actor Joel Edgerton sitting at a table, and what’s he doing? Writing in a journal, of course.
His character, Narvel Roth, works at a high-end botanical garden in an unnamed town (the movie was shot in New Orleans and New York, and the gorgeous flowers seen suggest upstate while the hanging oak trees suggest Louisiana). It’s the private estate of Sigourney Weaver’s Norma Haverhill, with whom the taciturn but always candid Narvel has a special relationship. Narvel is indeed the master gardener of the title, but we soon infer that gardening has not always been his reigning passion.
His voluminous journal entries, which have a lot of information about plant life, but also open into flash-frame flashbacks to an earlier part of his life, have unnerving qualities. He describes a certain sensation as “the buzz you get just before pulling the trigger.” A viewer may notice that Narvel always wears long-sleeved shirts, even as the weather gets warmer. It’s curious. Then, late one evening, in the isolation of his private residence on the estate, he strips to the waist in front of the mirror. During my first viewing of the movie, this was the point in which I wrote in my notebook, “What the f—k is going on?”
And I left it at that writing from Venice last year—and I’m still going to leave it at that. The mileage other critics give you will definitely vary; the plot has also been discussed in a spate of recent Schrader interviews. But if there’s a chance that you can walk into this film innocent, you should. That’s the way the movie will best work on you.
One afternoon after discussing an upcoming charity gala, Miss Haverhill, with great hauteur, announces that he will professionally look after a niece of hers, a young woman named Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya’s having a rough time because of, Norma declares with a smirk, “lifestyle issues.”