Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener Doesn’t See the Forest for the Trees
The Third of Schrader's “God's Lonely Men” Trilogy Promises a Fruitful Plot but Is Sadly Under-Seeded
Master Gardener is the third in Paul Schrader’s “God’s Lonely Men” trilogy, in each film of which a weary middle-aged man who has previously experienced alienation from mainstream society contends with his haunted past and hazy future, reflecting on these things, and his rote daily existence, via diary-keeping—a technique that suffices until his world is challenged by knowledge of something greater, and tested by a newfound bond with a distressed young person. Via these characters, the films in this trilogy tend to pair and interrogate the relationship between two normally unrelated topics: religion and climate change (First Reformed, 2017), gambling and the War on Terror (The Card Counter, 2021), and horticulture and racism (Master Gardener, 2022).
Schrader is an accomplished, highly literary storyteller and his interests (particularly in the masculine-coded concepts of destruction and violence) have produced some of film’s most fascinating inquiries into the ills of modern society, from Taxi Driver to Affliction to American Gigolo, to First Reformed and The Card Counter. First a film critic and then a screenwriter (responsible for classics like Raging Bull and Obsession and famous for his collaborations with Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma), Schrader’s later work as a director is epitomized by the triad of films about “God’s Lonely Men,” three anti-social anti-heroes in crisis: a self-loathing pastor, a troubled gambler, and a secretive gardener, all reckoning with the sudden collision of themes, lives, selves once kept at a distance. Many of his protagonists, but especially these three, can be read as homages to Alain Delon’s Jef Costello in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 film Le Samouraï: cool, reserved, highly-competent professionals whose adherence to rituals and observances leaves them unprepared to confront unforeseen cataclysms.
It’s almost never useful to compare films in a director’s oeuvre to one another; despite similarities, each is its own discreet contribution. But Schrader’s films are designed to reference each other—or, really, The Card Counter and Master Gardener are designed to reference First Reformed—so please forgive me while I place them all side-by-side for a moment. In First Reformed, Ethan Hawke plays Ernst Toller (no, not that Ernst Toller), a cheerless reverend at a small antique church upstate who keeps a diary of his own stark life the same year he happens to encounter a distraught climate activist who opens his eyes to the ravishment of God’s green earth by greedy corporations, as well as the ways God’s own church is influenced by corporatization to the point of disregarding the stewardship of the planet.
That film, a simmering hagiography of a soul in turmoil, provides the blueprint for Schrader’s subsequent two films, not only thematically, but also stylistically, in the terms I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The films are dark, lonely meditations into their protagonists’ natures, told via their floridly-written, allusion-rich journal entries, as they finally confront aspects of their lives and their worlds they have kept at bay for so long.
The Card Counter inherits the framework of First Reformed, but reworks it enough for it to feel distinct; Oscar Isaac plays William Tell (no, not that William Tell), a former military interrogator and now card-counter, who carpetbags from casino to casino, living out of austere motels, until he meets a young man who informs him that he knows his true identity, as a soldier who served jailtime for his role in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The young man asks for Tell’s help committing an act of revenge against one of Tell’s military superiors. This film slowly explores the human capacity for both empathy and cruelty, teasing out the relationship between “keeping one’s cool” and”losing it.”
I don’t have as conclusive a reading of the forces at work Master Gardener, arguably the film in this trilogy with the toughest conceit. Joel Edgerton plays Narval Roth, a taciturn head gardener of Gracewood Gardens, a privately-owned estate with gardens that are open to the public. Narval manages a team of polo-clad young people, overseeing their work but also instructing them in the history, philosophy, and science of horticulture.
He answers to no one, except Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), the wealthy owner of the estate, who throws his carefully cultivated world out of order when she demands he take on an apprentice, her grand-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell). Maya is biracial, the daughter of the “wayward” daughter of Norma’s sister, who left the family and “fell in with a bad crowd,” as Norma purrs. Maya seems to be her only relative left, so she is eager to draw her into the family—but not enough that she doesn’t insist that she work on the family’s land first.
Maya is a curious, intelligent twenty-something, quietly accepting of the fact that she’s a minimum wage worker on her great aunt’s estate. Norma wants Narval to educate her, teach her about the maintenance and culture and theories of horticulture, so that she might be able to pursue a career in the field in the future. Maya takes kindly to this earthy finishing school, especially because she likes Narval, her soft-spoken teacher.
The movie appears to take place in the South (it was filmed in Louisiana), and the house looks like a plantation manor, so it seems like there might be some interesting explorations into contemporary white supremacy, the way Norma insists that Maya be fashioned into a more refined version of herself in order to be welcomed into her family tree, and simultaneously wants Maya’s self-improvement to take place via farmwork, metaphorically beneath Norma literally in the dirt.
But the film wobbles from here on out, mostly because we learn about the haunted Narval’s past as a soldier of a Neo-Nazi militia, before turning state’s evidence against the group and going into witness protection. Under his clothes, he is covered in White Pride and Hitler-fandom tattoos, which now he looks at disparagingly in the mirror. He likes his current life as a peaceful caretaker of the Gracewood Gardens, is glad to have distanced himself from the silo of racism, misogyny, antisemitism, and violence in which (he explains) he was raised.
That Maya and Narval form a bond while he also has flashbacks to things that his proud boy/hillbilly cult leader told him about the importance of “pulling out the weeds,” suggests that Master Gardener will become a thriller about the insidiousness of white supremacy, intertwining a reading gardening as a kind of fascism (or at least, a way to disguise it). In other words, perhaps Narval’s solitary salvation in gardening for a racist white lady becomes an outlet for the very impulses that allowed him to thrive in a fascist cult in the first place.
Master Gardener doesn’t till this ground, though, which is fine, but it also doesn’t do anything else productive with all of these rich, ripe, and (productively) thorny thematic concerns. What begins as an incredibly fruitful plot soon wilts and shrivels into a wandering love story; and the kind of discipline and restraint that Narvals brings to his gardening becomes, exactly, the element missing from the story itself. Master Gardener quickly forgets its powerful portrayals about white supremacy and racism when it becomes interested in whether or not its protagonist can be redeemed, can be saved, and, in giving him some way to carry this out, represents Maya as needing to be saved by someone, too.
If this narrative shoot were to blossom into a meaningful development (unlikely as it is), we would need a clearer understanding of Narval’s life or background, a focused explaining of how he has come to be changed in the first place. But more importantly, this whole angle not only misses out on saying anything thoughtful about race in America, but also robs Maya of the opportunity to be more than a plot device, perhaps (especially in light of Swindell’s elegant performance), the greatest sin of all. What results is a confusing film, overgrown in some areas and under-seeded in others.
Instead of becoming as thoughtful and risky an exploration as The Card Counter, Master Gardener becomes a game of 52-card pickup. It’s as if Schrader has a deck of cards and instead of laying them out strategically, throws them all in the air and lets them come down where they will. Instead of become the focused sermon of First Reformed, Master Gardener becomes one of those themed themed refrigerator poem packs. It has a lot of terms on the table, but shuffles them around until they say almost absolutely nothing.