Paul Schrader (“The Card Counter”), who could be the king of voiceover-based films, well handles “Master Gardener,” another portrait of torment that the auteur can add to his catalogue. While the film doesn’t offer anything new in terms of guilt, it hits all the right notes with emotion and pathos, thanks to the leads Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver.
Schrader once again puts his angst-ridden character behind the desk with a diary, this time in the body of Narvel (Edgerton) a former anti-government white supremacist. Narvel is now a painstaking horticulturalist working for an exclusive garden owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Narvel has an eerie bond with Norma and while it isn’t explicit there are clues that Narvel, as a former criminal, owes his life to Norma.
Norma (who refers to Narvel as “sweet pea”) requests to speak with her head horticulturalist, giving him an offer that he can’t refuse. She asks Narvel to mentor her troubled grandniece in the art of gardening with the hope that she will one day be a credit to the landmark.
The normally introverted gardener is not at all enthusiastic about the idea of mentoring someone, but he is not in the position to refuse a lady like Norma. She hovers in the center of the screen like a queen cobra, practically hissing her commands.
Enter Maya (Quintessa Swindell) a bi-racial young woman with a glib tongue.
Narvel goes home daily to write in his journal and while this is a very frequent ingredient in a Paul Schrader story it still manages to be satisfying. Gardening is the sole occupation that keeps Narvel from going mad with guilt and regret. In bed, the invariably quiet man tumbles and tosses from his imps of violence, half hidden in the night.
Shocking still it is to see Narvel’s back completely covered with swastikas and SS Eagle and lightning tattoos, even though given Paul Schrader’s oeuvre of sin and masochism, we can well guess what the viewer is in for.
Suffice it to say, a romantic rapport develops between Maya and Narvel while the grand dame of the garden is none too happy.
Hell hath no fury like a Norma scorned especially if played by Sigourney.
Schrader’s latest compulsive anti-hero becomes driven by vigilantism once more, but no spoilers here. While all the director’s iconic cues are present, our eyes remain compelled to see what unfolds.
The most intriguing aspect of the film is the submission / domination dynamic between Narvel and Norma. Beware of wealthy women living in rooms wallpapered with jellyfish.
Although the masochistic missions prove to be business as usual for Schrader, it is a testament to the skill of Edgerton and Weaver for keeping us engaged in this floral fury.
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