a man sits on a garden bench
Credit: Magnolia Pictures

A man writes in his journal. He sits alone in a dimly lit room, accompanied solely by his lengthy—and vapid—internal dialogue. It’s painfully obvious that he’s hiding his tragic past by filling his diary with musings about the virtues of gardens. But without much surprise, his steady composure unravels, revealing the expected fragility elicited by this entire premise. Yes, this is another Paul Schrader film, and the latest man in question is Master Gardener’s Narvel Roth, an austere horticulturalist played by Joel Edgerton. 

For the most part, Narvel’s introspections deal directly with the plants, exploring their peculiarities to segue into vacuously profound reflections on his life. He lives quietly and tends to Gracewood Gardens, an opulent estate owned by southern heiress Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). At first, the film simmers, pedantically shrouding any tactile insight into Narvel. As he cares for the garden, his gentle demeanor distracts us from his undeniably imposing presence, and for a moment, we’re convinced he’s simply a passionate gardener. This is especially true when Norma tasks Narvel to train her estranged grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), with the hopes that she will inherit the gardens. 

But this is Schrader’s protagonist, so it’s best not to hold high hopes. In an abrupt turn, Narvel removes his shirt to reveal his massive neo-Nazi tattoos. Cue the troubled past, one that’s complicated by his affection for Maya. Master Gardener’s entire premise hinges on this disquieting revelation, and unfortunately, the film falls short of enduring impressions. Unmediated violence and inane plotlines dilute the compelling performances of Swindell, Edgerton, and, specifically, Weaver, whose small role is arguably the most memorable. Master Gardener’s most absorbing moments are frontloaded, like any journal entry. And similarly, Schrader’s latest film wanders off into the familiar territory of his unmodulated thought. R, 111 min.

Limited release in theaters