Paul Schrader cultivates his garden

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Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver in the movie “Master Gardener.”

Paul Schrader cultivates his garden

Paul Schrader authored or co-authored the screenplays of what are clearly Martin Scorsese’s best, harshest, most vigorous films, notably Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Schrader searched his own soul to reveal the madness of Travis Bickle, the fury of Jake LaMotta, and the woe of Christ; Scorsese transubstantiated Schrader’s words into visual symphonies.

Yet when judged on the works each made independent of the other, the two collaborators’ paths diverged. Widely referred to as an elder statesman of cinema, Scorsese is increasingly content to cater to popular tastes with audience-pleasing super-productions (Shutter Island, Hugo) or to reproduce past triumphs rotely (The Irishman).

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By contrast, Schrader is no benign elder statesman. He is volcanic, unkempt, and possibly unfit for polite society. The best evidence of the fundamental difference between the two men is their respective public profiles. Scorsese comes across as kindly, professorial, and paternal. Meanwhile, Schrader has an internet following on the strength of his combative, provocative Facebook posts.

And Schrader has emerged as a more ferocious and committed filmmaker than his famous old pal. Over the course of a 45-year directorial career that encompasses such major works as American Gigolo, Hardcore, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Schrader has shown himself to be drawn to darkness and tempted by redemption in equal measure. His willingness to wrestle with those dueling impulses sincerely and stylishly is what makes his filmography lasting. Few directors can be said to filet themselves in public to the same degree.

Schrader has never been more transparent in his obsessions, though, than in a series of recent films that put much of contemporary American cinema to shame. Released within five years of each other, First Reformed, The Card Counter, and his newest film, Master Gardener, are rendered in a severe, streamlined style that has rightly been compared to that of the filmmaker’s chief cinematic model, French director Robert Bresson. Yet that comparison does little justice to Schrader’s passionate engagement with contemporary times: The Card Counter centered on an ex-soldier who had a role in the torture at Abu Ghraib, and Master Gardener attempts to comprehend the psyche of a former white supremacist. Schrader’s aesthetic may owe much to European cinema of more than half a century ago, but his themes are utterly urgent.

Master Gardener stars Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth, a gardener tasked with maintenance of the elaborately planned Gracewood Gardens somewhere in the Deep South. In true Schrader style, Narvel records his observations on horticulture in a journal. There, he reflects on the distinctions between formal gardens, informal gardens, and wild gardens. Sometimes, he lapses into philosophy. “Gardening is a belief in the future, a belief that things will happen according to plan, that change will come in its due time,” Narvel writes. And with a line like that, the audience can be sure that Schrader will mine his protagonist’s profession for maximum metaphoric value.

From the film’s first moments, we sense that Narvel has, like a garden, changed. We thoroughly believe that Narvel’s poised presentation — calm, collected, and controlled — has been arrived at only with great effort. When we first encounter him, Narvel cares for plants the same way that he tends to the needs of Gracewood Gardens’ genteel proprietress, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver, who is steely and only fleetingly charming): with seemingly effortless ease. Even his appearance — his patted-down hair, heavily lined but inexpressive face, and uniform of constricting overalls — suggests self-mastery.

In Schrader’s world, however, to be in control of one’s actions and emotions indicates an attempt to conceal one’s inner, or former, self. “Beauty in and of itself is dangerous,” Schrader once said of his masterpiece The Comfort of Strangers, and the theme applies doubly here. This film shows us so many extraordinarily beautiful things, gardens and flowers and pea gravel paths and gracious porches, before disclosing the ugliness that exists among them. So when Schrader reveals Narvel’s background, it’s in starkly physical terms, too. At one point, Narvel stands sans his shirt, and the audience is confronted with a body horrifyingly tattooed with Nazi slogans and swastikas, permanent reminders of his earlier life as a militia member.

Later, Narvel agreed to inform on militia members to the government, and in an act of apparent mercy, Norma invited him to take charge of her lovely gardens. “I found a life in flowers,” Narvel says. “How unlikely is that?”

No more unlikely than Narvel’s relationship with Norma’s biracial grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell, who, with her quiet but intense manner, is a perfect counterpart to Edgerton). Maya, treated like a wayward youth, is recruited as Narvel’s apprentice. Norma undoubtedly has low expectations, but under Narvel’s guidance, Maya proves to be an eager worker and willing learner. Ultimately, both are tossed out of Gracewood Gardens after Norma objects to the closeness of their relationship — an intimacy expressed in an excruciating scene in which Narvel sits bare-chested and, behind him, Maya stirs in bed and apparently sees him for who he is.

“I thought you should know I was once someone else,” Narvel says earnestly, but Schrader surely knows that such an explanation, and the expectation that comes with it that Maya will simply accept him and move on, is insufficient. Indeed, Maya is rightly appalled. Yet the story doesn’t stop there. Instead, Schrader shows us the agonizing effort, and the shifts in power dynamics, required for their relationship to carry on somehow.

Much of the film concerns Narvel’s efforts to exact revenge on a pair of amateur-hour drug dealers who harass Maya and later defile Gracewood Gardens. This material is vintage Schrader; remember William Devane’s Vietnam veteran who goes on a payback mission to Mexico in the Schrader-scripted Rolling Thunder? But here, the filmmaker offers a protagonist who stops just short of pulling the trigger, his decision to maim but not kill a potent act of inner cleansing.

“The damage seems irreparable now, but plants rejuvenate. That’s what they do. Like us,” Narvel tells Norma. Though he is speaking of the damage to Gracewood Gardens and its potential for renewal, he is plainly referring to himself. An irreparably damaged garden, an irredeemably flawed soul — both seem so hopeless. Can a man once committed to hate recommit himself to mercy and love? Paul Schrader has offered his answer.

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Peter Tonguette is a contributing writer to the Washington Examiner magazine.

© 2023 Washington Examiner

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