Writer and director Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener is a movie that’s hard not to describe as weird. His dialogue is odd, and the humans don’t entirely act like real people. Narvel (Joel Edgerton) is in charge of the gardens of an estate owned by Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Their relationship is complex, and the many layers of that complexity are slowly peeled back as the film progresses. The tension between them rises when she requests he takes on her great-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice. Maya’s troubled past only complicates things further. 

A central idea of the film focuses on a plant metaphor. Narvel is frequently writing in a journal that the audience is privy to via voice-over. In it, there is an idea that the seeds planted in the past sometimes keep us rooted in our problems. The gardening metaphors lay deep, and not all of them are subtle. Narvel’s seeds are still visible over his body whenever he is shirtless. The role he finds himself in currently is a redemption story for a severely horrific past. This same idea is introduced in Maya’s character, and less so with Mrs. Haverhill. It’s something worth exploring in some ways – but mostly didn’t connect for me. 

What is undeniable in this film is the cinematography and set design. There are, of course, beautiful shots of the garden as characters wade through them uttering often awkward dialogue. Every room and location is used for look and tone throughout the film. The scenes at the very least are pleasant to look at. That is, except for one scene that is reminiscent of the Sasquatch sequence in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, which is perfect in that film – but it stands out as quite an odd one here. 

The three leads of the film give it their all. Edgerton frequently manages to be both charismatic and stoic at the same time; a feat that is not easy to achieve. That stoicism is used with the silted dialogue to some effect, but the words still feel clumsily written. Weaver’s character is the oddest, with some of her lines feeling like first-take improvisations rather than carefully crafted sentences. She’s not bad, but the performance is strange. Swindell is solid in the role, but the dynamic between her and Edgerton is a little rocky. Again, most of these issues feel more like script problems than performance ones. If you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s Old or Knock at the Cabin and thought the dialogue felt clunky, you’ll likely feel the same with this. The catch is Shyamalan’s dialogue felt more by design than this film’s. 

Master Gardener is worth exploring, but it’s not a film that will click for everyone. The films I’ve seen tackle similar subject matter have always landed better than this one did. It was hard not to laugh at some of the lines of dialogue and odd character quirks. There is a moment where Narvel threatens someone with a pair of pruning shears, and makes a reminder gesture as he drives off: a moment that feels like we should be seeing how much of a threat Narvel really is felt silly rather than menacing. 

Master Gardener is in theaters on May 19. 

Rating: Not a Total Waste of Time

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