It’s a lot of things, but “Master Gardener” is first and foremost a Paul Schrader film, and a Paul Schrader film can usually be counted on to deliver one thing above all else: a moody story about a tough man, adrift, who is thrust into a tough situation.
The details, and even the genres, might differ from film to film, but the angry, aggrieved beating heart is generally — if not always — pretty much the same.
It was that way with his screenplays for “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” two early films that helped put him on the Hollywood map; and it was that way with “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” two of his most recent films that, with “Master Gardener,” form what he has said is an unofficial trilogy.
What makes it all so fascinating, and what makes Schrader one of the industry’s more compelling auteurs, is that, while he might often play in the same narrative sandbox, he doesn’t often repeat himself. Each of his films are distinct creatures unto themselves, for better or for worse.
Just as importantly, despite those similar thematic underpinnings — and despite the chilly, difficult-to-embrace tone they share — Schrader’s films unfailingly offer interesting ideas to mull.
That is the case with his uncharacteristically optimistic “Master Gardener,” a small, quiet film — as heavy as it is humorless — about a tightly coiled man who is thrown into crisis when his secret past is forced into the open.
That secret is a decidedly ugly one, and Schrader doesn’t flinch from it. But just beneath its cold, macho veneer lies a film that’s really about beautiful, precious things — things like hope, redemption and the promise of tomorrow.
That sort of sentimentality is far from a Schrader hallmark. Warmth is not and never has been his calling card. Regardless, “Master Gardener” benefits from it.
So does its main character. Played with stern precision by Joel Edgerton, his name is Narvel and he is the no-nonsense head gardener of a sprawling estate with an equally sprawling botanical garden.
(The location of that fictional estate, Gracewood Gardens, is never explicitly stated, although, for the record, it is played in the film by two St. Francisville plantations, Greenwood and Rosedown.)
Along the way, Schrader doesn’t shy from indulging in metaphor, much of it gardening-related. Expect allusions to roots and seeds, blooms and blossoms, nurturing and growth.
Some of it, such as the name of Gracewood, might flirt with being a bit too on-the-nose, but it’s always more satisfying to know for certain a filmmaker’s intention rather than to be left to divine it based on opaque hints.
Though cordial, the Narvel we first meet isn’t exactly a people person. Severe and guarded, he carries himself with a ramrod-straight spine and the sort of unflagging self-discipline that suggests military training. Or something like it.
When we learn his secret about 22 minutes into the film, he simultaneously becomes even less likable and more dangerous.
By that time, he’s already been asked by his employer — an aristocratic Sigourney Weaver, in Margaret Thatcher’s hair — to mentor her troubled grand-niece (Quintessa Swindell) in the finer points of gardening.
He’s also already accepted.
Without giving anything away, let’s just say the kid’s arrival introduces potentially explosive possibilities.
Charmless though Narvel might be, it becomes difficult not to sympathize with him. The more we learn about him, the more he seems genuinely haunted by his past transgressions and genuinely interested in continuing his evolution as a human being.
The question then becomes which Narvel — the old one or the new one — is the real Narvel.
You’ll have to buy a ticket to learn Narvel’s fate, but with “Master Gardener,” Schrader proves that — at least where he’s concerned — old dogs can indeed learn new tricks.
Mike Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.