This Paul Schrader thriller has some good ingredients, by the recipe is half-baked

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Master Gardener
Opens Thursday 26
3 out of 5

Younger generations may think of Paul Schrader as a filmmaker past his prime, a man whose disapproval of cancel culture has been dismissed as cute. Schrader is such a boomer he uses Facebook for his rants against wokeism.

But those of us familiar with his full career know better. Schrader has never been at ease in his own skin. His specialty are men displaced, untethered. One could argue that with Taxi Driver (1976) he predicted the whole incel phenomenon. Of course he sympathizes with the “cancelled”.

His last three films fit the pattern, but with a twist. The leads in First Reformed (the best of the bunch), The Card Counter and Master Gardener have darkness in their souls. But they learn to live with and reshape it to serve their better angels. Fire and brimstone angels, but angels nonetheless.

Master Gardener,the final film in the Rebirth Trilogy, is the least accomplished of the three, but by no means dismissible. Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby) is Narvel, the buttoned-up head gardener of a private estate. His employer, Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), asks him to tutor her troubled niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell). The girl is at odds with two low-level dealers who are threatening her wellbeing and has no one to turn to.

Unbeknownst to everybody but his boss, Narvel used to be a white supremacist who frequently relied on violence before turning on his fellow skinheads. He has the skill-set to make all of Maya’s problems go away. But by doing so, he may attract the attention of the people he betrayed. And neo-Nazis aren’t known for being the forgiving type.

It’s quite possible Paul Schrader, concerned about his health, rushed Master Gardener into production without having the story down. The film has fascinating characters (Narvel and Mrs. Haverhill are both well-rounded, larger than life figures). But like a child playing with plastic action figures, it doesn’t know quite what to do with them. Still, Master Gardener is worth watching on the strength of the ingredients. ■