Writer and director Paul Schrader is a serious filmmaker who has put together a trilogy of dramas about redemption, morality, violence, and transformation.

In First Reformed (2018), he focuses on a Christian minister whose life and faith are turned upside down by his guilt over pressuring his son to join the military and also by a parishioner’s worries over climate change.

In The Card Counter (2021), a slippery professional gambler is forced to come to terms with his past crimes at Abu Ghraib.

In Master Gardener, a former neo-Nazi whose life was built on hatred finds his messy past catching up with him when a young woman propels him to find a new path of transformation.

Each of these misfits undergoes a crisis of faith and soul-shaking.

“Gardening is a belief in the future that things will happen as according to plan.”
— Narvel Roth

Gardens are special places because they engage our senses, evoke our wonder, bathe us in beauty, and connect us to a wider nonhuman world. A garden can be a place of play and of transformation. Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) works as the chief horticulturist for the formal Gracewood Gardens in Louisiana. He has been given a second chance after years of hatred and violence as a white Supremacist and a drug addict. He’s now in a witness protection program having turned against his gang.

Joel Edgerton as Narvel and Sigourney Weaver as Norma

The elaborate garden is owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), a rich, chilly, and domineering Southern matron. She calls Narvel “Sweet Pea” and sexually has her way with him. She seems to enjoy looking at the white supremacist symbols tattooed on his back; she can dominate him through his shame.

Life on the estate shifts radically when Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Norma’s biracial great-niece arrives. Narvel is ordered to train this 20-something relative as an apprentice. Norma takes great pride in her vast and beautiful garden, describing it as “four generations of curated botany, horticulture and display.”

Joel Edgerton as Narvel and Quintessa Swindell as Maya

There is a philosophical side to Narvel which comes with observations about nature, time, flowers, pruning and blooming. His botany lessons and instructions to his young staff often include life lessons. In an interview in Variety, Schrader said he decided to make Roth a gardener since the profession is a “rich metaphor” for both good and evil. He explained: “On one hand, a white supremacist can say ‘We’re the gardeners, we pull out the weeds.’ On the other hand a humanist can say, ‘We’re gardeners, we help things grow.’ And both are using the gardening metaphor — one is evil and one is good.”