Written and Directed by Paul Schrader | 111 min | ▲▲▲△△ | Netflix
I often think about casting, and how a project can sink or swim depending on who gets put in the key roles. Sometimes if it’s a poor fit it isn’t really about the skill or charisma of the actor, sometimes it’s just that they can’t quite deliver in a particular part.
You never want to blame an actor for this — they’re doing the best job they can, given the circumstances — but it’s legit to throw shade on a director or casting agent.
Master Gardener does an admirable job exploring Paul Schrader’s central and familiar theme — masculine sin, guilt, and the possibility of forgiveness — which can be traced as far back to his screenplays for Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. However, Schrader’s last two films, also treading this same earth — First Reformed and The Card Counter — were better than this one. This film is awkward in a way it never quite shakes off, despite a compelling concept.
It starts with that problem in the casting.
Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is a buttoned-down horticulturist in the service of wealthy landowner Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). You get the sense he owes a debt to her and will do anything he can to keep order in the life she’s provided. He lives on her property and tends to her garden, helping her prepare for her annual charity auction. She insists he take on an apprentice, her 20-something grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who’s lost her mother and has struggled with addiction.
Much of this set-up feels stagey and artificial. The script, wordy and self-conscious, isn’t helped by far too much voiceover, which seems like a crutch. The tension in the film comes from Roth’s past as a white supremacist, the hate literally carved into his skin of his arms and trunk, covered in tattoos of swastikas and other nasty shit. How he changed his life and reinvented himself is sussed out through flashbacks and his meetings with a police officer.
But while Joel Edgerton has proven he’s a serious talent, he fails to convince as someone who’s done what he’s said to have done. He never feels truly dangerous or suggests he might let his anger get the better of him. Roth was raised in hate, and when pressed he never loses his cool. I just couldn’t buy it.
As the story progresses the connection between his character and Maya warms up the movie. You know she’s going to discover his secret somehow, and that’s certain to sour their bubbling chemistry, but first he’s got to help with her problem — discouraging the people in her life who enable her addiction.
These thriller elements are the film’s strongest — that undercurrent of suspense compounded by the question of whether either character is worthy of the other’s trust.
The film poses a broader question: should we forgive Roth for what he’s done in his past, and is it at all possible that Maya could, or should? Your mileage may vary on whether the answer given is the right one.
Master Gardener never quite blossoms. It’s a picture that in hindsight feels a lot less coherent than it did while watching it, but I can see a lingering argument that it might still be worth sitting through for what it tries to do rather than what it succeeds at.