Across five decades and two dozen films, Paul Schrader has told all manner of stories, but his ongoing “Man in a Room” series will be his enduring legacy. Schrader has spent a lifetime critiquing modern American masculinity through thematically tethered tales of lonely, self-destructive men, their disconnection from the world and their respective quests for some transcendence on this Earth. His latest, “Master Gardener,” centers on his most controversial figure yet, but comes out with more hope and optimism than he has displayed his entire career.
Joel Edgerton stars as Narvel Roth, a horticulturist. Roth is tasked with maintaining Gracewood Gardens, the ornate and sprawling estate owned by his boss, Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). In what is arguably his most sparse and affecting screenwork, Edgerton’s Roth is meticulous and puts great care into his work. “Gardening,” he says off-screen, “is a belief in the future. That change will come in its due time.” As in other Schrader works, the voiceover leads to solemn shots of the man hunched over a desk, scrawling in his special little notebook. Schrader has taught us that no one documents their innermost thoughts as diligently as a man with a dark past.
But the film doesn’t wait long to reveal Roth’s unsettling background. Early in the first act, Roth undresses alone, revealing a tapestry of swastikas and other white supremacist imagery scarring his flesh. He was once a Proud Boy, responsible for multiple hate crimes and murders, but granted a new life in witness protection for aiding in the capture of his fellow gang members. He’s spent over a decade tending to these gardens, relying on the discipline necessary to do this work to plant himself anew, hoping someday he will have fully grown into someone else.
Roth claims he wears his past on his skin so that he never forgets his past, should his memory ever fail to fuel his guilt. But these images on his body also power his boss’ disquieting fetishism of his racist past. Ross doesn’t just tend to Haverhill’s garden. He’s also her reluctant lover. Haverhill’s twisted admiration for the man he once was makes her insistence that he educate her “mixed-blood grandniece” on the intricacies of horticulture all the more cursed. Haverhill is fine pawning the recently orphaned Maya (portrayed by nonbinary performer Quintessa Swindell) off onto her hired help until the duo’s connection quietly transforms from master and apprentice to lovers, leading her to disown them both.
Roth and Maya’s romance is delicately portrayed, if a little underwritten. She has the baggage of drug addiction that he can relate to because of his neo-Nazi tweaker days. But there are also threats from a pair of former associates causing her trouble — the kind the film suggests may need a taste of the old Roth. The film initially maintains the trajectory of Schrader’s last couple of efforts, where the central figure must inflict violence to gain even a semblance of redemption.
His last few films hewed closer to this doomer mindset. Consumed by the environmental crisis, a pastor (“First Reformed”) is driven to plot a literal suicide bombing. A former guard at Abu Ghraib (“The Card Counter”) found brutal self-flagellation the only respite from his predicament. Roth is his first protagonist to escape a similar fate.
Schrader’s protagonists often end up on the wrong side of prison glass, separated from the women in their lives. Rather than succumbing to climactic violence to pursue further self-inflicted punishment, Roth submits to Maya. That act of servitude breaks the cycle, opening a new branch of possibility.
There’s a lot to unpack with this being the first time Schrader lets one of his main characters off the hook. This is now his second film in a row where a white man wrestling with the violence he’s enacted in this world finds solace in the embrace of a Black woman. There’s something to be said about shackling these women to a role of bestowing cosmic forgiveness like some free-use sin eater. One certainly would wish for a film that tackles the complex nature of hatred on a more visceral level, especially from the man whose original vision of Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” was a much more vivid portrait of racism.
But Schrader isn’t positing that love from the oppressed will transform the oppressor. “Master Gardener” is a softer, more patient, and lyrical film than Schrader has ever made. From Devonté Hynes’ plaintive and affecting score to the film’s Elysian depiction of flora, it is a movie bursting at the seams with a tentative kind of optimism.
Schrader doesn’t seem particularly interested in the complex specifics or logistics of accountability here. But the fact that he’s finally embraced the idea of proper redemption being possible on a long enough curve feels revelatory.
Centering this tale around horticulture is a perfect metaphor for “the work” people insist must be done for restorative justice to function within society. It’s not saying that tending to a garden for a decade makes up for a life of hatred and violence. Instead, “Master Gardener” uses the beauty of all the colorful petals to highlight a necessary freedom — the potential outcome of the hard, dirty work that a garden requires to blossom.
“Master Gardener” is currently playing at The Charles and the AMC White Marsh 16.