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Master Gardener, the new film from writer and director Paul Schrader, begins with an image of borderline self-parody. Starting with his script for Taxi Driver nearly 50 years ago, Schrader has become known for his “man in a room” films: earnest, probing dramas about men who use solitude to reckon with heavy existentialist questions. Sure enough, after a stately credit sequence, his latest opens with a man in a dimly lit room, writing alone to himself in a journal. Longtime fans will chuckle at the familiarity, and there is a deeper purpose to it. Aside from Schrader acknowledging that many filmmakers essentially remake their own work over and over again, this image is the cinematic equivalent of cracking one’s knuckles, or a well-calculated opening move in a chess match. He’s telling us what we’re in for.
That kind of instruction is especially important to Master Gardener because it is Schrader’s most provocative film in years. Many audiences will struggle to sympathize with his protagonist, a stoic man with a dark past who does not believe he deserves happiness, then finds it anyway. Unconcerned by what is fashionable or modern, Schrader digs deeper into his own psyche and stern, Calvinist upbringing in order to determine what makes someone worthy of redemption. Sometimes in his work, the answer to that question can be more obvious— though still somewhat challenging—like when Schrader co-wrote the screen adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ. In the case of his latest protagonist, Narvel Roth, the needling consideration of a redemptive arc is precisely the point.
Joel Edgerton plays Narvel as a calm, reserved man who finds meaning in his profession. He works as a gardener in the kind of sprawling estate where tourists pay to tour the carefully maintained grounds. His employer is Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), an older woman whose genteel facade hides deep feelings of resentment and hatred. Still, she goes through the motions of a caring matriarch, and one day she explains that her grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), will be Narvel’s new apprentice. She goes on to explain that Maya, who is in her 20s, has struggled through life and that the structure and discipline of gardening may be her way toward meaning. Narvel agrees to help, and develops feelings for Maya along the way.
When Mrs. Haverhill explains the Maya situation, Schrader’s dialogue includes a phrase that stands apart from the literate, tasteful language he prefers. Mrs. Haverhill calls Maya “mixed blood,” a racist term to indicate she is biracial. Narvel does not blink at the language, though it stands out, and later we fully understand why: Prior to working as a gardener, Narvel was involved with a White supremacist militia and only got off that path through the witness protection program. (Mrs. Haverhill tolerates Narvel’s racist past because she has similar beliefs.) He still bears the shame from that era from his life, in ways both psychological and literal: Aside from persistent self-loathing, Narvel’s chest and arms are covered in hateful tattoos, including the SS insignia and multiple swastikas. In a key moment where Narvel takes off his shirt and looks in the mirror with regret, Schrader suggests this is the most honest part of his daily routine—facing what he believes himself to be: an irredeemable monster.
Master Gardener follows a familiar arc toward redemption, with Narvel finally confronting his past—and the possibility of a fulfilled, happy life—with Maya’s help. This is where Schrader provokes his audience, forcing them to consider questions that have no easy answers. His relationship with Maya only deepens our unease. They become lovers, despite the tattoos, and she finds it in her heart to see beyond them. Does Narvel earn redemption, forgiveness, and acceptance? If not, why? It is easy to provide glib answers, and yet Schrader eschews the simple approach with each additional character detail. Narvel’s occupation is also a calling, and he describes plants and gardening as if they are a metaphor for understanding human life. Sure, Narvel saves Maya more than once, and in return he gets a shot at a more complete life that can never fully erase his dark past. In a scene of startling anger, Maya lashes out at Narvel after she learns more of his truth while he sits quietly, taking the abuse he feels he’s earned. These characters and situations provide an intellectual test of our values, and also something deeper, more spiritual. To Schrader, courting uncomfortable topics is the only way to get there. He is a moralist, not a provocateur, although skeptics may regard both modes as the same.
Before he became a screenwriter and filmmaker, Schrader wrote the book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. In Master Gardener, as with many of his films, you can see the influence of those directors on his own work. Like Robert Bresson, his camera placement has an unhurried feeling, cutting only when it is necessary. Like Yasujirō Ozu, he prefers medium shots of characters and pastoral beauty, filming them at a respectful distance so we can observe, rather than feel more immediate involvement. These are the right choices for the material, creating a sense of calm even as Schrader shoots scenes brimming with erotic tension or coiled violence. The performances also match the material: Edgerton conveys self-loathing, albeit in a one-note role, while Weaver and Swindell have notes of anger, tenderness, and even warmth. Although they could not be more different, these women realize that Narvel’s nature creates a tough opportunity for their own self-reflection.
Master Gardener might be best understood as part of an informal film trilogy. Like the protagonists of Schrader’s two prior films, First Reformed and The Card Counter, Narvel prefers to write in a journal in a dark room. All these men have lives of humble routine, at least until a woman shakes them out of a stifled state of moral complacency. But whereas the first two films of this trilogy end with disturbing moments of violence, the hero of Master Gardener ultimately finds happiness and tranquility. Maybe Schrader wants us to believe that the disillusioned priest of First Reformed, or the former Abu Ghraib interrogator of The Card Counter, are less worthy of peace than Narvel and his hateful past. That kind of question is almost beside the point, at least to Schrader, for whom introspection matters most. Master Gardener reminds us peace loses its meaning and its redemptive power when only the innocent and wholly decent achieves it. More than most, Schrader internalizes none of us are all that good, and he uses his flawed hero to help us agree with him.
Master Gardener opens at area theaters on May 19.