The Provocative Optimism of Master Gardener

The film, which takes on neo-Nazism and white supremacy, is Paul Schrader’s most challenging work yet. It’s also his most hopeful.

Quintessa Swindell and Joel Edgerton stare at each other while standing in a garden, in "Master Gardener."
Magnolia Pictures

Early on in Master Gardener, the taciturn, mysterious protagonist sits down and starts writing in a journal, essaying his thoughts in voice-over. I saw the film with a packed audience that immediately let out a knowing chuckle. The director Paul Schrader’s explorations of the inner life of “God’s lonely man” have included a lot of cinematic diaries over the years. Master Gardener completes a trilogy that began with 2018’s First Reformed and 2021’s The Card Counter, tales of men wrestling with chaotic guilt and seeking a modicum of redemption. The series has helped bring new attention and deserved praise to Schrader’s body of work.

Master Gardener focuses on perhaps the touchiest topic yet in Schrader’s challenging filmography: neo-Nazism and white supremacy. It’s also, surprisingly, the most optimistic of his “man in a room” movies. Is Schrader becoming a softie in his advancing age? Maybe, but I think Master Gardener’s sensitivity is provocative in and of itself, daring the audience to forgive a man whose past is steeped in profound evil.

The atonement arc largely succeeds, though Schrader is guilty of barreling through some moments of character development and acceptance that might take a lifetime to achieve in reality. Each film in the trilogy takes on themes of staggering weight: In First Reformed, the specter of an apocalypse hangs over the main character. In The Card Counter, the protagonist is haunted by his former identity as a torturer for the U.S. military in Iraq. In Master Gardener, Narvel Roth (played by Joel Edgerton) is a meticulous gardener on a huge estate run by the wealthy dowager Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver); only she knows that he was once a violent neo-Nazi, and that his body is covered in white-supremacist tattoos.

The relationship between Norma and Narvel is cloyingly genteel on the surface. She calls him “sweet pea” and completely trusts in his maintenance of her gardens. But she has an unspoken level of control over him, fueled by his shame; he wants his past to remain unknown, and he dresses in long sleeves and pants even on the sunniest days to hide it away. The statuesque Weaver expertly underplays Norma’s frightening WASPiness, letting out the barest hints of her true vindictiveness; meanwhile, Edgerton directs all his intensity inward, taking as much care with every brusque line reading as Narvel does with his beloved plants.

The garden landscape, a hideaway that looks prim and proper but is also a habitat for radical transformation, is a perfect metaphor for the overall story. Much like the time lapses that Schrader layers throughout the film, of flowers growing and blooming under scrupulous care, Narvel’s own progress is aided by his strict schedule and spartan lifestyle (along with, the audience learns, an arrest for violent crimes that led to a plea deal and his placement in witness protection). The final step in that journey arrives with Norma’s grandniece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a disaffected young biracial woman in need of a job and stability that Norma thinks the regimented Narvel can provide.

Narvel and Maya’s eventual bond is the most complicated twist in his metamorphosis. And it’s another thread that’s deeply reminiscent of First Reformed and The Card Counter, whose protagonists open up after more-grounded women enter their lives. There’s something endearing about Schrader repeating the same plot beats again and again; even his famed script for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver back in 1976 saw a man writing in a diary and struggling with both his potential for evil and his capacity to forge a romantic bond.

That film ends extremely pessimistically, whereas this recent trilogy equivocates on whether people can genuinely better themselves. Master Gardener needs the audience to buy into Narvel and Maya’s relationship, and if they don’t, the heartfelt finale may come off to some as an unrealistic fairytale. But it worked for me, largely because of the way Edgerton’s wounded, cautious performance bumps up against Swindell’s raw nerviness. Master Gardener is a spiky and often mournful tale, but I appreciated the bits of hope Schrader mixes in to temper the bleaker realities he’s tended to for so long.