Writing about Paul Schrader “The Card Counter” two years ago at the Venice Film Festival, I noted that Schrader referred to it as one of his “man at the table” pictures. A year later, again in Venice, I saw “Master Gardener,” his new picture, which has just seen a US release. And here he leans on that trope even harder: after an elegant sequence of credits using time-lapse photography to show beautiful flowers blooming, the very first shot of the picture is of the lead actor. Joel Edgerton sitting at a table, and what is he doing? Writing in a journal, of course.
His character, Narvel Roth, works in a high-end botanical garden in an unnamed city (the movie was shot in New Orleans and New York, and the beautiful flowers seen suggest the high while the hanging oak trees suggest Louisiana). This is the private land of Sigourney Weaverof Norma Haverhill, who is never taciturn but always outspoken with whom Narvel has a special relationship. Narvel is indeed the master gardener of the title, but we soon learn that gardening wasn’t always his reigning passion.
His many journal entries, which contain a wealth of information about plant life, but are also open to flash-frame flashbacks to an earlier part of his life, have unnerving qualities. He describes a sensation as “the buzz you get before pulling the trigger.” A viewer may notice that Narvel is always wearing a long-sleeved shirt, even when the weather is getting warmer. It’s interesting. Then, one night, in the isolation of his private residence on the estate, he stripped to the waist in front of the mirror. During my first viewing of the movie, this was the point where I wrote in my notebook, “What the f—k happened?”
And I left it in writing from Venice last year—and I’ll still leave it. The mileage given by other critics certainly varies; the plot was also discussed in a series of interviews with Schrader. But if there’s a chance you can walk into this film innocently, you should. That’s how the movie works best for you.
One afternoon after discussing the upcoming charity gala, Miss Haverhill, with famous hauteur, announced that she would professionally take care of her niece, a young woman named Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya is struggling because of, Norma states with a chuckle, “lifestyle issues.”