When I wrote about Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter” two years ago at the Venice Film Festival, I noticed that Schrader referred to it as one of his “Man at a Table” pictures. A year later, back in Venice, I saw “Master Gardener,” his new pictorial, and just watched its US release. And here he leans into that trope more awkwardly: After a neat credits sequence using time-lapse photography to show pretty flowers blooming, the first shot of the picture is of 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 fine botanical garden in an unnamed city (the film was shot in New Orleans, New York, and the gorgeous flowers seen are suggestive of the state’s north while the hanging oak trees suggest Louisiana). It’s the private property of Sigourney Weaver’s Norma Haverhill, who has a special relationship with the but always outspoken Narvel. Narvel is indeed the master gardener in the title, but we quickly conclude that gardening wasn’t always his predominant passion.
His bulky journal entries, which contain plenty of information about plant life but also open in flashbacks to an earlier part of his life, have disturbing qualities. He describes a particular sensation as “the buzz you get before you pull the trigger”. The viewer may notice that Narvel always wears long-sleeved shirts, even when the weather gets warmer. He’s curious. Then, late one evening, secluded from his private lodgings on the estate, he unbuttoned his waist in front of a mirror. While I was watching the movie for the first time, it was at the point where I wrote in my notebook, “What fk is going on?”
And I left it at that writing from Venice last year – and I’m still going to leave it at that. The mileage other critics give you will certainly vary; The plot has also been discussed in a series of recent Schrader interviews. But if there’s a chance that you could enter this movie innocently, you should. This is how the movie will work best.
One afternoon after discussing an upcoming charity gala, Miss Haverhill announces, with a luxury connoisseur, that she will be professionally grooming her niece, a young woman named Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya is having a hard time because of it, Norma announces with a smirk, “Lifestyle issues”.
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