Sin eater

Paul Schrader is up to his old tricks in ‘Master Gardener’

Courtesy: Magnolia Pictures

The man sits alone in his room. His name is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) and he is a gardener, but he might as well be Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) or gambler William Tell (Oscar Isaac) or any one of writer-director Paul Schrader’s “man in a room” protagonists.

Schrader’s latest, Master Gardener, forms the final entry in what many critics consider an unofficial trilogy, the previous entries being 2017’s First Reformed and 2021’s The Card Counter. All three are good (one is great), but the quality here is not the interest. What makes these movies work — and work well — is how each of them takes philosophical queries of redemption and forgiveness and sets them in the muck and mire of real-world settings. Watching these movies is one thing, wrestling with them — well, that’s what it’s all about.

And you will wrestle with Master Gardener. The story concerns Narvel, the man in charge of a large Southern plantation’s botanical garden, Gracewood Gardens. Gracewood’s owner, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), has a special task for Narvel: Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Norma’s biracial niece, has recently lost her mother and is coming to work and live at Gracewood, and Norma wants Narvel to prepare Maya for inheriting the estate. Will do, says Narvel, a measured man and a compelling teacher. His compliance is no surprise to Norma. She knows he will do whatever she asks of him. Narvel has a past and Norma is helping him run from it.

“I was raised to hate people who didn’t look like me,” Narvel says. “And I was good at it.” That’s putting it lightly. A reformed white supremacist, Narvel’s skin is a flag for hate, a mark of Cain that’ll never quite wash off. He tells Maya this, and she internalizes it to a point. No one wants their present, let alone their future, to be defined by their past. Still, few can deny that who they once were isn’t a part of who they are. But can a soldier for a Proud Boys-esque militia organization transform into a mild-mannered gardener who not only works side-by-side with people of color, but also develops a romantic relationship with one? “Plants rejuvenate, that’s what they do,” Narvel tells Norma — if you needed a metaphor to hang on to.

Master Gardener could be, maybe should be, the most incendiary movie of the summer. But for that to happen, people would need to see it. Schrader, who has been making movies since the early-1970s, has never received the same attention as his contemporaries. And though he has directed a dozen or so astounding films, he is and will always be best known for the scripts he’s penned, particularly the ones directed by Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, even The Last Temptation of Christ). And not without reason — though what Schrader achieves with his last three movies feels unique to modern cinema. 

For many filmmakers, questions of faith, forgiveness and redemption are easy allegories trotted out to provide density. Not so with Schrader: He hits these questions head-on and refuses to provide easy outs. Ditto for viewers trying to reconcile Schrader the person with Schrader the artist. (Schrader, who is 76 and full of opinions, is quick on the Facebook draw, and has been told by distributors more than once to refrain from posting while his movies are in theater.)

With that in mind, you may wonder if the question of forgiveness at the heart of Master Gardener might feel self-serving. Born into the Calvinist church — it shows in every one of his works — Schrader doesn’t want you to forget his demons, lest you forget your own. The charge here is not to separate the artists from the art, but to consider the multitudes people are capable of.

Master Gardener is far from perfect. There is one scene in particular — let’s call it the “show me your skin” scene — that feels so off it has to represent something more. Then there’s Norma (Desmond, perhaps?): too conveniently one note. The age difference between Narvel and Maya is obvious, but the way Schrader presents the two characters, you almost get the feeling they are stand-ins for their respective generations, with the younger one healing the older by bringing them to clarity. That almost makes sense in theory, but there’s so little theory in Master Gardener that it feels like a stretch.

What isn’t a stretch is Edgerton’s performance — outstanding — and Schrader’s continued exploration of the man in the room and the sins that put him there. There’s an old sentiment that a filmmaker really only makes one long movie throughout their life. That rings true here. Though for many, that familiarity is a crutch. For Schrader, it’s a revelation.

ON SCREEN: Master Gardener opens in limited release on May 19.