Paul Schrader Puts Hope into His Narrative

May 19, 2023

This review was originally part of our coverage for the 2022 Venice Film Festival.

At this point in his career, Paul Schrader (First Reformed) is simply working from a template: a man in his 40s with a murky past seeks redemption. He has a unique profession. He will define his life by that profession. He will journal about his profession. A younger outsider will disturb his small, hidden life. When times start to get tough he will question why he even journals anymore because it no longer helps him process his (now disturbed) rules and order. And through the outsider, the potential for violence will bubble to the surface, carrying with it a shot at personal redemption.

In Schrader’s Master Gardener, that man is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) and he is a gardener and horticulturalist at a wealthy woman’s (Sigourney Weaver) family estate. He lives on the grounds in a small single-room home. Schrader, a cantankerous presence online, is knowingly messing with his niche audience at this point by having Mrs. Haverhill (Weaver) describe her sister’s death as “tit cancer” and immediately opening the film with Edgerton at his desk journaling about a unique plant. He concludes that we all “must update in due time” and pushes his journal up the desk and pulls out a computer. Schrader has discovered the orderliness of spreadsheets, baby!

The outsider is Mrs. Haverhill’s estranged grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya’s family past includes fatal drug addictions and though Mrs. Haverhill expresses no outward tenderness, she decides it best that Narvel take Maya on as an apprentice in the gardens. The complication is Maya’s abusive drug dealer whom Narvel attempts to protect her from, causing an attraction that will undo the homeostasis established on the grounds.

Image via Magnolia Pictures

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Narvel’s past is tattooed all over his body with Nazi iconography and skulls. He has reinvented himself and devoted his life to studying plants, seeds, and maintenance. He is beloved by his staff, made up mostly of people of color. Other than himself, only Mrs. Haverhill is aware of the disturbing markings under his shirt and it’s something she uses to hold him there at her beck and call.

Now, the metaphors are obvious. Hate starts with a seed but is nurtured and reinforced through care and repetition until eventually it grows large enough to spread. Hate is an invasive weed that can kill more unique and beautiful flowers. But work on oneself follows a similar approach to pruning plants back so they are manageable; weeds can be replaced with beautiful, non-invasive plants, that hold their ground and blossom in place.

Once the drug dealers enter the picture, we know that trouble is ahead. But Schrader is able to prune back some of his more established impulses to service this particular story. Narvel doesn’t desire to kill but to inflect a permanent injury that would cause the people he’s warned to see and feel their decisions every day marked upon their body. The violence holds a potential to change.

Narvel describes gardening as a careful labor that is purely about a hope for the future. There is no looking backward with a plant, only tending for its progression or losing sight of it and allowing regression to set in. And like many of Schrader’s best films, his knowledge of work is detailed and well researched, and the description of his labor is revealing of his main character.

It’s easy (and perhaps justifiable) to snicker at the budding romance because it is incredibly on-the-nose and the age gap clocks in at two decades difference. But Schrader gonna Schrader; at this point you know what you’re getting. And it isn’t cloying in its messaging because we meet Narvel without hatred in his heart, action, or words. So she isn’t healing him but rather asking him to erase the reminders marked all over his body.

Image via Magnolia Pictures

It’s nice that First Reformed put Schrader back on track and hard at work into his 80s. And this does feel like he’s made a thematic trilogy. But, by watching Master Gardener, I finally was able to place my finger on what makes First Reformed so special compared to most of his recent work. It’s because the priest is having a crisis of faith rather than a horrific past, and what creates his journey is a spiritual question that he had not considered: is it justifiable to bring children into a world that we’re actively destroying when we’ve shrugged at stopping our own ticking doomsday clock that future generations will have to deal with instead of us? Schrader’s two subsequent films that followed his own cinematic redemption have followed the same template: where, unlike First Reformed, the character’s own misdeeds are flashed back upon. And the flashbacks require very little of you beyond your own awareness that acts of torture in the Iraq War (The Card Counter) and Neo-Nazis (Master Gardener) are both heinous. It’s a simple and economical approach to redemption; it’s also hopeful. We hope that such a person could be reformed.

I found Master Gardener more rewarding than The Card Counter; though it is incredibly similar structurally, every step of the way. I found it to be better because the description of the labor fits the redemption arc neatly but also provides a space to hide, to be alone, and to become more contemplative.

Perhaps my recommendation of Master Gardener over The Card Counter is as simple as I’d rather be in a lush, green garden than in a casino at a green table. But I do think, while this is templatized Schrader, he shows more of an ability to prune and rework small areas within his work that had too many weeds. Edgerton’s natural and stoic approach to his role feels like a decade of atonement. And Weaver relishes every statured moment she has. She’s tending to the grounds by burning them down. Schrader’s actors clearly seem to enjoy the template because they know exactly what to do.

Grade: B-

Master Gardener is in theaters now.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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