Master Gardener is the third film in director Paul Shrader’s new “Man in a Room” trilogy, with First Reformed and The Card Counter. It’s kind of remarkable that Schrader has had this amazing comeback after many years of varying quality. He was always a welcome guest at film festivals, whatever his newest project was, but he has had some real failures and a film (Dying of the Light) taken away from him. These films are as good as most of the films he has ever made—and not many filmmakers have a run like that in their mid to late 70s.
In Master Gardener the main character, Narvel Roth, is played by Joel Edgerton. It’s his most optimistic film, but it’s going to mess with some people’s sensitivities. Roth is the lead gardener working at Gracewood Gardens, employed by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). He is a middle-aged former neo-Nazi who left that life and found something he’s good at. He has a transactional sexual relationship with Haverhill as well. Like all of Schrader’s lonely men, he has his daily rituals that keep him going.
What makes this film very different from his others is that it does not have a major act of violence at the end. It’s actually a very optimistic film—which is where I think Schrader is at right now. The end is soundtracked by a song with the chorus “I don’t want to leave this world without saying I love you” which sums up the message he wants to leave his audience. The main question posed by the film you could say is if redemption is earned or given. There is a beautifully surreal moment where Narvel and Maya drive through a field of flowers. It’s also different to some of his previous “Man in a Room” films because he doesn’t do his trademark “Pickpocket” ending.
Edgerton is an undersung actor and really good fit for Schrader—a masculine actor with real vulnerability. Like all of Schrader’s leading men, he brings this world-weariness to the role, and you easily believe that he has found a routine that keeps the past that he can’t shake off in the background enough to function as a human being. Schrader really likes to push people’s buttons, and originally wanted Kevin Spacey in the role, saying that move might get people over the un-PC age difference between his leads and the fact the character is a former neo-nazi. It ends with the message that we might be able to deal with our demons and come out in a better place at the end.
Swindell is known from Euphoria and Black Adam, and turns in quite a good performance—unlike some other viewers, I bought the relationship, since her character is a former drug addict who’s a mess when she arrives. There’s even some humour here, with Weaver having some very funny lines. Glenn Close turned down the part of Norma Haverhill after asking Paul for years to write her something for years, Schrader’s wife Mary Beth Hurt is one of Close’s oldest friends.
If you like Schrader’s work, this is probably the least commercial of his most recent three films. I would say that this loose trilogy are actually better versions of the “man in the room” films he directed previously. He’s become a better writer, more world-weary, and more thoughtful. Taxi Driver is the obvious exception in terms of quality, but that was very much a film written by a young man who was angry at the world.
He almost lost his eye and died making this film too, so you’ve got to give Schrader some respect for that level of dedication. It’s one of the best films of the year, and I hope people can get over those aspects that could be seen as problematic, because there’s a deep film there if you can engage with it on a serious level.
Master Gardener is out now in US theatres and comes out 26th of May in the UK.