Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader returns with Master Gardener
Paul Schrader, the writer of Martin Scorsese classics Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, has had a spotty history as a director. For every American Gigolo or Affliction there have been several The Canyons or Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcists.
This seemed to be behind him following the success of 2017’s nail-biting First Reformed and 2021’s divisive The Card Counter. He returns with what feels like the latest in a thematic trilogy, Master Gardener.
Joel Egerton plays Narvel Roth, a groundskeeper for the estate of wealthy Southern widower Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Obsessed by the precision and order of horticulture, his routine is disrupted when Haverhill asks him to take on her great niece Mata (Quintessa Swindell) as his apprentice.
Schrader once again tells the story of a quiet man desperately suppressing his past. That’s no bad thing, given that this formula has produced some great cinema, but the lack of deviation is beginning to feel restrictive.
Bringing the subject of race into the story is also tricky. Maya is Black, and Narvel has past links with a hate group, although this conflict is brought in for tension rather than social discourse, which seems like a shame given the religious dialogue that rages in First Reformed.
Nevertheless, it’s a tale bedded in fine dialogue, with a cast who all bring their best to the screen. With slicked back hair and a monotone voice, Egerton is the latest in Schrader’s long line of intriguing male leads.
He works wonderfully with Weaver, who thrives in a different type of role, while Swindell ensures there’s a simmering chemistry that flies in the face of the discomfort generated by the difference between her and Egerton’s age.
Master Gardener is unlikely to be as fondly remembered as its immediate predecessors, but like Narvel himself it maintains the high standard expected of it.