Paul Schrader’s Tender Late-Career Efforts Bloom Once Again with Master Gardener

Movies Reviews Paul Schrader
Paul Schrader’s Tender Late-Career Efforts Bloom Once Again with Master Gardener

This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 New York Film Festival coverage.

In a short time lapse, a multicolored flower blooms in an all-white, spaceless place, hovering in studio photography limbo. It dissolves away, replaced by another. The screen splits and two bloom simultaneously. More flowers of various colors fade in and out while Master Gardener’s opening credits change over them. Veteran writer/director Paul Schrader has always had a visual obsession with beauty in isolation. Like one of the radiant sets placed neatly in the center of a blank room in Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, the flowers magnetize your attention and affection preemptively, setting the stage for an emotionally and thematically complex story.

Master Gardener is just as much about the history and philosophy of gardening—and a kind of natural zen state found within—as it is the louder elements (of which there are many): The virulent neo-Nazi past of the born-again horticulturist Narvel Roth (a sage, stern, perfectly cast Joel Edgerton); the identity of Norma Haverhill (a fierce and unbecoming Sigourney Weaver, good as ever), the entitled owner of the southern estate he perfects the gardens of; Haverhill’s sexual exploitation of Narvel. Or, most prominently, the budding romance between the 40-something gardener and the dowager’s Black teenage grandniece, Maya (a tender and equally stern Quintessa Swindell).

Anyone would be proud of managing Gracewood Gardens. It’s a viridescent, well-cultivated network of fresh-cut hedges dictating paths through managed grounds with pockets of monotone or kaleidoscopic floral color sitting in the dirt. As Norma, a gardening authority, explains, it’s “the best of both worlds…curated botany, horticulture and display,” a place for both medicinal healing and aesthetic pleasure.

The house she occupies sits mossy and dour like a rock on the colonial plantation, big southern trees draped all around it. A relic, it looks like it’s molding over, despite the wonder of the surrounding garden where life flourishes. Like Narvel and Norma, the plantation has surrounded itself with beauty to obscure the past.

“Gardening is a belief in the future that things will happen according to plan” is the kind of thing Narvel needs to believe to move on from a life of presumed hate crimes, but it’s certainly gotten him somewhere. Rehabilitated through gardening, Narvel is a changed man—an open, patient, pastoral figure who speaks tenderly and chooses words carefully. His eyes swell up and he gets romantic thinking about the exchange people share with the earth when they walk on soil.

He doesn’t look terribly unlike Ethan Hawke’s Rev. Ernst Toller from First Reformed, pacing calmly through the garden in his (mostly black-on-black) horticulture vestments, an exhibit-worthy collection of incredible outfits from costume designer Wendy Talley. Each layer of clothing is an unfolding petal revealing something about the character in the way only fashion choices can.

I’ll leave the loosely connected details swimming around in your head rather than reconstruct the plot, but it’s milder than it sounds. Master Gardener might be bred to be divisive and confrontational, but there’s a sweetness to it, an ethos in Schrader’s old age that comes through like a concerned empathy for a narrow cultural conscience with a healthy dose of self-doubt. It’s a small, quiet film with a tiny cast, one chief location and a vested interest in how to blossom into one’s own in healthy, mindful ways—whatever that might mean for someone.

Dev Hynes’ (of Blood Orange) atmospheric score is an emotional touchstone in an oft-confusing arena both narratively and thematically. It’s hard to imagine how one should receive any of this without some providence from the score. It’s an everyday story for Schrader, a stalwart in cinematic perversion, but it’s more careful than most of his others, and tastefully so. The clearest example is in the meticulously planted seeds of consent, phrased as explicitly as possible throughout the screenplay so as to leave no room for interpretation in certain areas.

In his 70s, Schrader’s built an impressive late-stage thematic trilogy in First Reformed, The Card Counter and now Master Gardener. They’re eerily similar, obviously made by the same man, but don’t feel repetitive. They’re overflowing with subtext. If anything, the subtext goes overboard into cartoonishness at times, stripping the depth found in the stiller moments. But that’s unapologetically Schrader, and it’s to taste. When you zoom out, he’s created three sharp, honest, intriguing iterations on themes he’s been exploring his whole career.

What might a tempered, isolated man writing alone at his desk in the near darkness of lamplight be thinking about? What does he do? What if he’s into flowers? Or cards? Or god? What was his past? What do people share across vocations? Through romances and sexual desires? How are their daily lives affected by institutions? Prison, collective history, the church? How do they understand power and their relation to it? What are we afraid to talk about and why? It’s not all brilliant or profound, and it’s certainly not all well-worded, but it’s always thoughtful.

Remarkably candid, Schrader said that the time he spent making Master Gardener was fraught with health issues, leaving him believing it would be his last film up until a very recent uptick in health. If it were his last, it’d be a fine one to go out on: Tender, tense, contemplative and somehow still in your face. But lucky for us, there’s more Schrader in the oven.

Director: Paul Schrader
Writer: Paul Schrader
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell
Release Date: October 1, 2022 (New York Film Festival)

Luke Hicks is a New York City film journalist and arts enthusiast by way of Austin, TX. He got his master’s studying film philosophy and ethics at Duke and thinks every occasion should include one of the following: whiskey, coffee, gin, tea, beer, or olives. Love or lambast him on Twitter @lou_kicks.

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