Paul Schrader’s Unlikely Optimism

Paul Schrader’s Unlikely Optimism

Master Gardener seems designed to provoke. But in his late age, the filmmaker has settled into an earnest style, fixated on love and second chances.

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The premise of Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener is, on paper, a provocation: A reformed white supremacist, living a secluded life in witness protection after flipping on his crew, falls in love with a young biracial woman during a period of shared crisis. The man in question, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), toils away as a horticulturist employed by the estate of a wealthy, childless dowager, Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). His steadfast commitment to her land, and to the diurnal rhythms of gardening, helps him preserve order in his own life after spending much of it dedicated to death. In Narvel’s eyes, it’s an act of penance to give back to the earth with the same hands he previously used to poison it.

When Haverhill insists that Narvel take on her estranged grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as an apprentice, he cautiously agrees at first, but after warming up to her, he eventually sees it as another opportunity for atonement. A wayward addict still mired in the hazardous neighborhood of her youth, Maya takes to Narvel’s guidance and the quiet stability of gardening. His kindness toward her, in the form of education and, eventually, shelter after she’s attacked by an abusive dealer, doubles as genuine affection and an act of amends. Narvel’s behavior stands in explicit contrast to Haverhill’s, whose wealthy liberal exterior eventually betrays a genial, barely concealed racism toward Maya, which stems from both prejudice and a jealousy over her growing closeness to Narvel. (Haverhill’s casual sexual relationship with Narvel displays her fetish for power over him through her wealth and knowledge of his past.) On Master Gardener’s surface, Schrader baits a certain strain of naive, brittle liberal moralism.

As Maya and Narvel grow closer, she discovers his full-body tattoos of swastikas and white pride emblems, which he keeps as a living reminder of the rot he spread. Her initial disgust and outrage quickly fades, however, and she adopts a tone of pity and understanding, especially after Narvel helps her through narcotics withdrawal. In a scene that verges perilously close to poor taste, they both succumb to their lust, with a naked Narvel crawling on his knees to pleasure Maya as an implied plea for her mercy.

As Schrader repeatedly underlines in the film, appearances are misleading, if not downright inaccurate. Master Gardener succeeds precisely because Schrader never treats this material as a cheeky attack against political sensitivity; neither the aging auteur nor his actors ever behave as if redemption is at odds with contemporary progressivism. Schrader’s genuine belief in salvation takes the shape of a pervasive serenity. His camera remains patient and austere; it glides smoothly across Haverhill’s garden, lingering on its beauty and color, pushing in on faces only when they need attention. It’s also content to record people existing within their environments from a stationary remove. As much as Schrader often incorporates the cruelty of the world into his vision, his camerawork communicates an unshakable optimism in people’s ability to rise above it, to discover and love each other, flaws and all. With Master Gardener, that cautious optimism translates into a sentimental belief in romance. “I used to be an artist who never wanted to leave this world without saying ‘Fuck you,’” he said in a speech at Master Gardener’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival. “And now I’m an artist who never wants to leave this world without saying ‘I love you.’”

Following First Reformed and The Card Counter, Master Gardener concludes a loose trilogy of films that updates Schrader’s signature “God’s lonely man” archetype—whose origins lie with Travis Bickle, the protagonist of his most celebrated screenplay, Taxi Driver (1976)—for 21st-century existential angst. Spotlighting an alcoholic priest experiencing a crisis of faith who is radicalized by a suicidal environmental activist, First Reformed was a conscious return to Schrader’s thematic métier of alienated figures on a path of self-destruction. He continued in this mode with The Card Counter (2021), which features a professional gambler and former soldier trained in “enhanced interrogation” haunted by the violence he has caused. Both films tackle systemic American sins—man-made climate disaster and the crimes committed in the name of the War on Terror, respectively—through the eyes of a spiritually remote figure who seeks to cleanse his soul, even if his efforts only make a small dent of change.

Schrader’s trilogy revisits another recurring motif in his work: the solitary man in a room, a self-possessed person separated from society and grappling with his thoughts. First Reformed and The Card Counter open with brief establishing shots before settling on a protagonist writing in a journal, his anguished words ringing in voiceover. With Master Gardener, however, Schrader wastes no time putting his solitary man in a room: He opens with Narvel scribbling over a table lit only by a single lamp. A minor gesture in the grand scheme, perhaps, yet it illustrates that Schrader, at age 76, is paring down extraneous details and fixing on the bare essentials.

Late-style filmmaking tends to fall under a “I know it when I see it” rubric, and in the case of Schrader, as with so many others, we see the familiar distillation of recurring themes and a desire to pursue those ends economically. These works tend to walk a thin line between insouciance and emancipation, resigned to being erratic, dissonant creations. The value of art made late in life can be best appreciated only when placed in conversation with the artist’s whole career and suggests an awareness of one’s encroaching mortality. Schrader’s late-period trilogy correspondingly exhibits a palpable indifference to anything except the passions that move him, the kind that have defined the majority of his career, but it’s Master Gardener that is most indicative of a “late style” for the writer-director. Many attributes characteristic of his work, such as the climactic act of violence all but required in a “Paul Schrader film,” feel as if they’ve been intentionally compressed or, rather, compulsorily included. In fact, Schrader imbues more viscera into a scene in which two vandals destroy Haverhill’s garden than any moment of bodily harm or verbal intimidation.

From a writerly perspective, Narvel and Maya’s generic characterizations are most symptomatic of this style. While Narvel, broadly speaking, is another classic Schrader protagonist—an exiled man, itching for punishment and redemption, who rediscovers the spiritual power of love—Schrader communicates his disgraced past in shorthand. Narvel’s racist tattoos perform most of the heavy lifting in communicating his origins, and the brief flashbacks to his younger days, filled out by mostly nonspeaking extras from neo-Nazi central casting and rife with clichéd imagery, scan as an obligatory addition. Meanwhile, Maya feels similarly approximate, a sketchy outline of a lost young woman searching for direction who has resorted to drug abuse to numb the pain inherited from her equally errant mother. They’re two people from disparate experiences but on the same edges of society, who find solace in each other and the gentle labor of gardening.

Yet, Schrader suggests, these backgrounds are merely part of the infrastructure necessary for Master Gardener to exist. He’s less interested in the details of Narvel’s and Maya’s pasts than in how they emotionally affect their present and future, evoked in his adoring depiction of them together onscreen. When Narvel regretfully muses on his previous life in voiceover, you can clearly picture the various sources from which it’s derived. (Previous Schrader films, perhaps.) But when he waxes poetic about the history of gardening or the fundamental properties of flowers, you hear Schrader’s profound interest in cultivation as a graceful practice and a multifaceted metaphor for creation, renewal, and control. Maya’s dilapidated neighborhood and her drug habit are depicted in the broadest of terms, but her realistically awkward yet cozy chemistry with Narvel conveys the ways that empathy emerges from the most unexpected of places.

Schrader’s attention strictly lies with the thorny relationship dynamics between Narvel, Maya, and Haverhill. Narvel’s and Maya’s growing affection can feel choppy at times, as if Schrader has intentionally skipped over key parts of their courtship, and the speed with which Maya forgives Narvel for his past might beggar belief. But Edgerton and Swindell’s performances compensate for these shortcomings; their oft-unspoken understanding for their respective pain, and the burdens they wear on their faces, creates a quiet tenderness between them. While Schrader subtly invokes the specter of slavery in Haverhill’s relationship with Narvel, which is tied up in queasy ideas of ownership and domination on a large plantation-like property, the mutual respect between Narvel and Maya grows like a germinating seed, despite the ostensibly yawning divide between their backgrounds. Their eventual consummation might sport some uneasy political implications, but the decision is sincere, radiating compassion and warmth. When Haverhill decries their relationship as obscene, Narvel’s calm rejection of this description rings painfully true: “I’ve seen obscene,” he replies.

Though First Reformed and The Card Counter pay lip service to the structural nature of their central evils, racism in Master Gardener dramatically operates on an individual level. For Schrader, hate is the product of both nature and nurture, a disposition one inherits that has to be actively fostered. Narvel knows that intolerance lives within him regardless of his contrition. Edgerton wears the visage of a man who knows he doesn’t deserve the fresh start he receives. Yet these qualities render Narvel a prime candidate for spiritual rescue in Schrader’s world, someone whose persistent internal suffering lends him the unique ability to graze the divine.

Schrader’s interest in expressions of the ineffable amid the confinement of the everyday stems from his strict Calvinist upbringing and his work as a film critic; he penned a critical study classifying “the transcendental style” across the works of Yasujirō Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. The films of his recent trilogy each contain a moment of spiritual transcendence that binds two people together. In First Reformed, Pastor Toller and the pregnant widow Mary engage in “the Magical Mystery Tour,” a nonsexual act of intimacy that sends them across space and time. William Tell and La Linda attend an outdoor light show that saturates the air with mysticism in The Card Counter. But in Master Gardener, the divine touches Narvel and Maya very briefly: In a dreamlike sequence, we see them slowly driving along a dark road where flowers magically bloom on either side before their very eyes as they howl in delight.

Truthfully, Master Gardener’s scene of transcendence pales in comparison to those in First Reformed and The Card Counter; Schrader forces the catharsis, and the chintzy effects undercut the moment’s power. However, Master Gardener’s final scene accomplishes what fantasy cannot: a soon-to-wed Narvel and Maya dancing on the porch of a cabin they’re rebuilding together as Schrader’s camera slowly pulls back, lending them both privacy and dignity. Schrader has explicitly swiped the ending of Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) on at least three occasions: American Gigolo (1980), Light Sleeper (1992), and The Card Counter all feature men in prison reaching out to their respective lovers, sometimes with glass between them, trying to capture their touch in a moment of naked vulnerability. But the ending of Master Gardener almost scrubs the Pickpocket ending of its tragic, unfulfilled dimension: Narvel and Maya’s silent expression of love doesn’t need to bypass any barriers because the two have already torn them down. A director whose career trudges on against all odds, Schrader finally lands somewhere near contentment, reveling in the warmth of a second chance.

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