Master Gardener sees Paul Schrader rounding out this “after the fact” realized it’s a trilogy of older men in crisis with its weakest entry, even if it has its heart in the right place.
Now, that isn’t to say Master Gardener is bad, it just doesn’t reach the heights of his previous two efforts (First Reformed being the high point). Schrader’s story follows a gardener with a sordid past he’s left behind and finds himself navigating romantic entanglements that put his secrets at risk. Joel Edgerton stars as the titular gardener, Sigourney Weaver plays his employer with benefits and Quintessa Swindell plays an apprentice that might steal his heart.
An early line in the film, “gardening is a belief in the future,” is delivered in Edgerton’s voice over and posits a more optimistic point of view for Schrader who started this loose trilogy with one of the most dire portraits of environmental disaster existential dread ever put on film. Inspired by an S.G. Goodman song, Space and TIme, the lyric “I never wanna leave this world/Without saying I love you” stuck with Schrader and informed his gardener’s journey across this film, the Schrader twist; the gardener is a reformed hitman for a white nationalist group, and the woman he’s falling in love with is a mixed race woman.
Every one of these films in Schrader’s trilogy deal with men who can’t quit their past/beliefs/impulses, and (thankfully?) the gardener isn’t able to quit his hitman tendencies as he tries to help his new apprentice get clean. That puts him face to face with some far more dangerous situations than pruning a garden has brought him, but Schrader doesn’t really dwell in those moments either. The film mostly exists as a character study of the three aforementioned leads and doesn’t really have any grand proclamations of love, hate or disgust about the things you’d expect given who all these characters are; most of the surface emotion in this film surrounds jilted lover feelings. The undercurrents are strong though, but Schrader mostly seems to be speeding over them on top of the water. Just as all the pieces seemed to have fallen into place, the film sort of rushes through to a conclusion and avoids much drama of any kind.
Still, there are some beautiful moments of love visualized here, and Schrader doesn’t really try to wrestle with the gardener’s past. He and we believe in Edgerton’s performance that this man has turned away from his past, as rare as that may be, and doesn’t really stop to ask you what you think about all of that. We have to be able to forgive honest change if our society is going to function, but this film maybe deals with all of that a little too easily. Edgerton is to the point and convincing as he slips back into his tough guy persona, but I do wish we got a bit more between him and Swindell, their relationship suffers from the rushed back half of the film; even if we know the why of it all. Weaver gets to have the most fun in the film, playing the matriarch of this garden and the psychosexual relationship she has with Edgerton. She’s the most manipulative and negative individual over the course of the film, but Weaver makes sure we are entertained with her pettiness and jealousy as love blooms around her mansion.
Master Gardener might be a bit too simple and broad when it’s all said and done, but Schrader doesn’t shy away from provocation either. That said, the lack of much provocation sort of sets him up to have to wade in the sentimental, something that he doesn’t seem all that comfortable doing; at least until the beautiful last shot/sequence of the film where a cover of Goodman’s song takes us home. Still, Schrader is Schrader, and if you like to get in his head for a couple of hours I’m sure you will find something to enjoy in his latest picture.