“Mistress Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow?”
Frances Hodgson Burnett “ The Secret Garden”
For Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), the award-winning garden surrounding her elegant plantation-like home is doing quite well, thank you. In large part because the titular horticulturist of The Master Gardner, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), has curated the beds to the highest quality.
However, this is a Paul Schrader movie, and Narvel is an inscrutable loner with a dicey past who can’t hide from his it or his demons. Writer/director Schrader meticulously crafts characters with pasts that slow-burn style invade that garden, so to speak, with potentially dangerous outcomes.
No surprise that this careful loner, Narvel, is a former white supremacist in a protection plan that covers him until his garden grows a lovely niece of Norma, Maya ( Quintessa Swindell), who is smart and alluring and quietly involved in drugs with the unfortunate interaction of her dealer boyfriend. Yes, she’s another character with a dark past.
The other major player, Norma, is so aloof and domineering, the essence of white privilege, that her persona damages whomever she owns, like Narvel and Maya. Not only does she demand Narvel’s physical comforts, but she also stays away from Maya for a while before she visits her on a job as an intern in the garden. The weeds are waiting for a negligent moment when they can fulfill their appointed fate, the compromising of the grounds and the family itself.
Schrader works out the fate of the players and the garden in Greek-tragic style, where character will out and life move on. The cinematography is elegant and low-key both when it zooms in on the flowers and the faces of these gifted actors. Weaver is stoic and reserved, Edgerton plays careful and coiled, and Swindell is a siren, well-meaning but lethally alluring.
The Master Gardener is my kind of beautiful and thoughtful drama playing out big themes in a small environ, albeit a dynamic metaphor for growth amid darkness. In a sense, it fulfills Schrader’s devotion to redemption, where he almost always (his trilogy starting with First Reformed and Card Counter ) works his protagonists’ demons to death with eventual goodness.
Director: Paul Schrader (The Card Counter)
Screenplay: Schrader (Taxi Driver)
Cast: Joel Edgerton (The Gift, The Great Gatsby), Sigourney Weaver (Alien, Gorillas in the Mist)
Run Time: 1h 51m
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at JohnDeSando52@gmail.com