Rebirth of the soul. “God’s lonely man” writing in his journal of a past littered with sin. A reach for a final grace. We are in the always intoxicating world of Paul Schrader whose “Master Gardener” arrives to give modern cinema a much-needed shot of adult filmmaking.
This is a reflective film about a man who (quite literally) wears his regret on his body and the violence and hate he left behind still haunts him. The soul is going through a moral cleansing, but the man, both past and present, will always be there.
Joel Edgerton (doing some of his finest work) is Narvel Roth, the head gardener of Gracewood Gardens, a sprawling Louisiana estate owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, giving her best performance in many years).
Norma tells Narvel that Maya (an intoxicatingly good Quintessa Swindell) is coming to work in the garden and is to become his apprentice. Maya is the grandniece she barely knows and highly disapproves of.
There is immediate friction in the unstable relationships between the three main characters. The fact that Maya is biracial will play a large part in the dramas cultivated in Schrader’s screenplay, but not in easily navigated ways. This is Paul Schrader. Viewers won’t find the simplistic moral changes found in a film such as “American History X”.
The comparison is just, as Narvel is a former white supremacist. He now hides his white power and Nazi tattoos with long sleeved shirts and jackets. As Narvel and Maya become closer, the tension is quite effective as we wait to see if the young woman will discover his adornments of shame, and how it will affect their blossoming relationship.
Schrader rightfully takes his time with “Master Gardener”. The beginning moments find Narvel narrating the pleasures and deeper meanings of gardening, Edgerton’s calculated cadence giving weight to the careful art of horticulture. Every word is deliberate, like the pruning of a delicate flower.
The film is refined in the way it portrays Narvel and his staff. As gardening has given life purpose, the gardener moves through the grounds softly and quietly. The man of the dark past has learned to be one with the peace of his surroundings.
This master gardener has transformed the grounds into something almost celestial in its beauty. In turn, the gardens embraced him, slowed him down, and allowed him to piece together his broken soul.
A great deal of the picture is as good as anything Schrader has done. The balance of the tormented spirit and the desire for control of one’s destiny are marvelously played out through careful direction and exquisite writing.
The screenplay’s major strength lies in how we don’t know the outcome of the main characters or how their complicated lives will affect one another. With every reveal, the power of the piece hits deeper.
The fact that Narvel and his employer have sex now and again will sour their “relationship” once Maya comes into the picture.
Norma makes Narvel stand naked in front of her as she admires his body, looking at him as if he were a trophy. This is a disturbing moment that makes us wonder if she sees something attractive in the racism that has been painted on his body. The suspicions heightened once we see Norma treat her grandniece as an inferior.
With the dynamics of the film locked down, Schrader briefly introduces two lowlife drug dealers, one of whom beats up Maya and eventually commits an act of vandalism so vicious that it will endanger his life. When the pristine splendor of the grounds is defaced, Narvel must reach back into his past (if only for a moment) to right the wrong.
An earlier confrontation with the drug dealers doesn’t hit as hard as it should, playing like an afterthought. As portrayed, the moment is awkward and felt as if the filmmaker should have either left it out or really have gone for it. While the scene doesn’t quite work, it is a minor pothole in an extremely good film.
There has been scuttlebutt regarding the validity of the film’s ending. Devoted followers of Schrader’s style may be taken aback by how the director decides to end this one. I found the finale to be eloquent and moving. What becomes of the main characters is well-earned and Schrader’s script has been smoothly guiding them to this truthful moment.
Always one to fill his works with the perfect music (Giorgio Moroder for “American Gigolo” and “Cat People”, Phillip Glass for “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”, and especially Michael Been’s songs for “Light Sleeper” and his son Robert Levon Been’s work for “The Card Counter”), the director’s streak continues here.
The dark ambient work of composer Devonté Hynes is terrific and fuels the balance of the dark and light found in Schrader’s characters. The closing song from Mereba embraces the destinies of Narvel and Maya; a benediction playing them off to a (hopefully) brighter future.
“Master Gardener” is the third film in what Schrader has referred to as an “accidental trilogy” that kicked off with 2018’s powerful “First Reformed” and continued with 2021’s “The Card Counter”. Each film features a protagonist in crisis; men who are alone and battling the ugliness of the world for possession of their souls. All three works feature their lead narrating for the audience what they write when sitting alone in nearly bare rooms.
This is the character Schrader began in 1976 with Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” and continued with Willem Dafoe’s John LeTour in 1992’s “Light Sleeper”.
In each of these films, it is a woman who exists as the savior, though all are as imperfect and corrupted by the world as the men. For these broken souls, the women are their path to grace, while the final violence the central figure experiences can be seen as a cleansing. Quoting Revelations, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.”
The cinematic world of Paul Schrader is sometimes misunderstood. His work has been called cynical or pessimistic. While the filmmaker portrays a world filled with corruption and sin, the characters in his pictures seek redemption, yearning to become more caring and responsible. Schrader wants that for them; the design of his screenplays rooting for their salvation.
Never taking the easy cinematic path, the films of Paul Schrader are expertly challenging and effective. Most importantly, his works are philosophical and spiritual.
“Master Gardener” is no exception.
With the ghost of Robert Bresson guiding his hand, Paul Schrader delivers another eloquent motion picture that finds its way through this dark world and into the light of forgiveness.
Written & Directed by Paul Schrader
Starring Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell
R, 113 Minutes, Curmeudgeon Films/HanWay Films/Ottocento Films