Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Master Gardener (2022) dir. Paul Schrader

God's Lonely Marigold


Paul Schrader burst onto the cinematic scene with his 1976 screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s epochal Taxi Driver, and has spent much of his ensuing career rewriting it. This probably reads as a dig, but I truly don’t mean it as such; just as Scorsese continually revisits the arc of Goodfellas by transposing it against different settings and tones, Schrader returns to this God’s Lonely Man archetype– the lost soul teetering at the threshold of functional stability and bloodthirsty vigilantism, documenting his own descent as if a passive observer– and holds him at different angles to the light, replaying his arc between different beginning and endpoints to fascinating results. Schrader’s latest film, Master Gardener, serves as something of a capper to a loose trilogy which began with 2018’s First Reformed and continued through 2021’s The Card Counter, and while referring to it as the lightest of the three is a hilariously relative statement, it has glimmers of something rare in Schrader’s latter-day output: hope.

When we first meet Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), he almost comes off as a parody of the Schrader antihero: we see him, once again, sitting rigidly in front of a journal in an austere bedroom, but instead documenting his mental decline or the collapse of the world around him, he is writing about different species of flower. Narvel is the master gardener of a sprawling estate called Gracewood, answering directly to lady-of-the-house Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, sinking her teeth into the part with magnanimous camp). Mrs. Haverhill informs Narvel that he will be taking on an apprentice: Maya (Quintessa Swindell), her newly orphaned grand-niece (“She’s… mixed blood,” Mrs. Haverhill pleasantly intones in such a way that makes clear her seething disapproval of her late niece’s choices). Maya takes to both the garden and Narvel, but it becomes clear that Narvel’s calm exterior masks his share of demons, and soon his past– and Maya’s– threaten to shake the idyll of Gracewood.

I try not to be too precious around spoilers, but I’m going to remain vague about the exact nature of Narvel’s backstory, because the shot in which it is revealed is one of the most stunning of the film, breathtaking in its lack of ambiguity while also raising a host of questions about the man we’ve come to know. The gaps are slowly filled in over the course of the film, but the shock of this revelation colors how we view his subsequent interactions with every other character, and especially with Maya. Each of Schrader’s Lonely Men is a ticking time bomb; with this single shot, we suddenly feel as if the second hand has suddenly been pushed several clicks forward.

But Narvel Roth falls at a point on the Vigilante Spectrum previously unexplored in the Schrader canon. By the time we meet him it’s clear he’s already committed any number of unspeakable acts, but unlike The Card Counter’s William Tell, who numbly wanders the country like a restless spirit, Narvel has found some sort of peace and satisfaction in his (or, rather, Mrs. Haverhill’s) garden. “I used to be someone else,” Narvel offers to Maya when she confronts him about his past, “I’m not anymore.” This nod toward redemption could be read as Schrader’s commentary on so-called “cancel culture” (a specter raised more than once by the director’s notoriously loopy Facebook posts), but it takes on a more profound meaning in the context of his larger body of work. The trajectory of the typical Schrader protagonist, from Travis Bickle to Reverend Toller, is an inexorable march toward a point of seemingly no return. Here, for perhaps the first time, we sense that return is possible after all.

Well, maybe. No one goes to a Paul Schrader movie expecting a quaint drama about flowers, and sure enough the director’s trademarks– bloody revenge, gradual self-destruction, tense encounters with colorful hoodlums– all eventually make appearances. Gardener hews closely enough to the standard Schrader anti-hero’s journey that it’s at times difficult to judge on its own terms, and comparisons to the director’s previous work don’t always play to its favor. Though Narvel’s struggles speak to contemporary issues, the film never feels quite as incisive as First Reformed, which for my money runs neck-and-neck with Get Out as one of the most blistering portrayals of what it felt like to be an American in the late 2010s. Unlike that film, Schrader here occasionally feels out of his depth connecting with the climate of the times, particularly when it comes to writing dialogue for a Gen-Z woman of color (though Swindell does a fine job with the material they’re given). And redemption arc or no, the nature of Narvel’s past transgressions will likely be a dealbreaker to many viewers, who will decide they simply can’t hang with this particular stripe of outlaw. It’s one thing when vigilantism is held out as a possible endpoint; it’s another when we see it in full color.

But what sets Master Gardener apart from its immediate predecessors is its apparent belief that even God’s Lonely Man can pull himself back from the brink. In First Reformed, the seemingly meek Reverend Toller spirals from a relatively respectable existence to a world of doomscrolling nihilism. In The Card Counter, torturer-turned-gambler William Tell makes strides toward redemption by taking a fellow lost soul under his wing, but neither of them can ultimately escape the darkness which dogs them across the highways of the nation. Narvel Roth, at his worst, was plainly the most evil of the three of them, but he’s managed to walk it back, finding satisfaction in his work, peace in natural beauty, and, ultimately, something like love. Narvel can’t quite escape from violence either (the climactic scenes are shot almost in shorthand; Schrader knows we know the drill by now), but it’s what follows that sticks with us: an odd moment of harmony amidst the chaos, which plays out over the ending credits before slowly fading to black. Master Gardener is pretty damn far from feel-good entertainment in the Frank Capra vein, but it suggests that, even in a world as bleak as Schrader’s, self-destruction is not necessarily preordained. “There has never been a choice for me,” Travis Bickle famously wrote in his journal. If only he’d taken up botany.

Master Gardener
dir. Paul Schrader
111 min.

Opens Friday, 5/19 @ Coolidge Corner Theatre

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