AFTER First Reformed (Arts, 17 July 2018) and The Card Counter (2021), Paul Schrader’s latest film, Master Gardener (Cert. 15), is a continuation of what he calls God’s lonely men. All feature someone keeping a diary, thoughts overheard through voiceover. Each character is consumed with guilt for misspent moments past.
This time, it is Norvel Roth, now lovingly overseeing the grounds of an elegant mansion in a former slave plantation. Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby) plays him as a laconic but warm-hearted supervisor of his young apprentices. His boss is the haughty Mrs Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), who appreciates not only his hard work, but also his body.
Norvel had previously belonged to a violent white-supremacist group. In flashbacks, we see him murdering critics (such as a black clergyman) of its far-Right doctrines. Norvel’s torso is riddled with racist tattoos, which he takes care to keep covered at all times — except for Norma, who, as a prelude to sex, feasts her eyes on these images and slogans.
Norvel has moved on. “I used to be someone else,” he is heard to say. His employer (whose name, perhaps not by accident, sounds like Miss Havisham) hasn’t. She is stuck in a past, one now considered evil. Although obliged to provide for her bi-racial great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Norma has feelings of distaste about her. While emotionally distancing herself, she asks Norvel to take the girl on as an apprentice. Maya brings problems of her own, which Norvel tries, in various ways, to resolve.
In terms of the plot, that is as far as we need to go, in a thought-provoking film that handles several important issues. Just remember that, with Schrader, from his groundbreaking book Transcendental Style in Film (1972) onwards, his stories trigger what he calls the Holy Other. He would argue that films perform a similar task to other awe-inspiring experiences — like time spent in a beautiful garden.
Here, his film transitions from realism to fable, which then morphs into the fabulous — something either impossible or improbable. At the start, Norvel writes in his journal: “Gardening is a belief in the future; that change will come in its due time.”
It is signalling a hope, repeatedly set before us: the promise of new life. Note the name of the garden that Norvel tends: “Gracewood”.
This film ultimately is no more about gardening than Trainspotting was about locomotives. Nevertheless, it is a powerful metaphor. There is a paradisaical vision of our world, albeit one mixed with connotations of exile east of Eden. We glimpse the unsightly tangles that humans reveal about themselves when they expose their roots. Weeding and pruning are perennially necessary if creation is to remain well-ordered. And, while Norvel bears on his body the mark of Cain, he remains a symbol of redemption.
This is a beautifully acted Kingdom of Heaven parable, in which Schrader continues to disclose his Calvinist origins. Fallen though we are, it is by the grace of God that salvation comes. Some viewers may feel that he has told this tale too many times before. For me, this director’s skill lies in the freshness that he brings to each landscape that he plants.