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Master Gardener

  • Film
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Master Gardener 
Photograph: Magnolia Pictures

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Paul Schrader’s sultry horticulturist thriller blooms early but withers on the vine

Aussie actor Joel Edgerton has been mining a cinematic brand of surly stoicism since Animal Kingdom almost 15 years ago, most recently on show in Netflix’s clammy crime thriller The Stranger. A perfect fit, in other words, for the Paul Schrader-verse, a place brimming with buttoned-up, quietly tormented men.

Edgerton plays Narvel Roth, a slick-haired gardener whose down-and-dirty past is mapped out in a series of terrifying tattoos tracing his torso, even if his too-tidy overalls look like they’ve never seen the mud. He loves relaying horticultural history in his head, occasionally hinting at wilder times. Sniffing a fresh bud, he notes that the nutty, minty bouquet ‘gives you a real buzz – like the buzz you get just before pulling a trigger’.

Narvel’s worked his way up from apprentice to master of the sprawling garden that curls around Sigourney Weaver’s imperious Norma Haverhill’s plantation-style home, decked out with spooky jellyfish wallpaper. A hammy hothouse flower, she has this to say of her pooch: ‘I named him porch dog when he was just a pup. I knew that was all he’d ever be.’

Keeping a close eye on everything that grows in her domain, Norma dubs Narvel ‘sweetpea’, abusing his secrets to bend him to her will. The arrival of her grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) interrupts this less-than-cosy arrangement. Norma takes a certain degree of pity on her after a family tragedy, ordering Narvel to take Maya on as an apprentice on minimum wage. But when they grow too close, Norma sharpens her sheers.

Sigourney Weaver’s role is panto-broad, but she leans right into it

It’s a fabulously steamy set-up. Sure, Weaver’s role is over-written and almost panto-broad, but she leans right into it, with Edgerton a reliably stony counterpoint. Sadly Swindell can’t keep up, and the lack of on-screen chemistry makes it hard to buy that Maya would be interested in the rumpled Narvel. As the film shifts away from the mansion and into a pretty pat subplot about far-right goons and drug addiction, it grows less like a prize-winning flower and more like a clump of unsightly weeds, further sunk by underwhelming work from Schrader’s regular cinematographer Alexander Dynan.

Master Gardener’s artful opening credits – set to the earthy rumble of Devonté Hynes’s synth score – depict flowers in bloom against a sheer black backdrop dissected by a thin white line. Later, Narvel warns Maya that they’re all just walking a line she should be careful of crossing. If only Schrader had crossed a few more, and not watered down the sultry melodrama, pruning it far too stiffly.

In UK cinemas May 26

Stephen A Russell
Written by
Stephen A Russell

Cast and crew

  • Director:Paul Schrader
  • Screenwriter:Paul Schrader
  • Cast:
    • Quintessa Swindell
    • Joel Edgerton
    • Sigourney Weaver
    • Esai Morales
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