Paul Schrader Treads on Very Familiar Ground

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 New York Film Festival. It was republished in connection with the cinema release.

The Pitch: So there’s this stoic-looking man, sitting at a desk in a dark, spartan room, writing in his journal while we hear his thoughts in voiceover. That’s the set-up for Paul Schrader Master gardenerlike his previous two films, The Card Counter and First Reformation. It’s also the spirit, at least, of many other movies he’s written and/or directed over the years, but his latest unofficial trilogy has a ritualistic quality, says Schrader. made his version of the stations of the cross, in gradual budgets.

The latest star to return Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth, head horticulturist at Gracewood Gardens, and although his routines appear regimented, he also seems closer to peace than previous versions of Schrader’s loner, played by Ethan Hawke and Oscar Isaac. In one of his strict formal meetings with his boss, land owner Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), he gives her a task—and for a moment, it looks like it might involve something violent or inappropriate. Instead, he asks him to train his estranged granddaughter Maya (Quintessa Swindell) in his trade, to steer her away from a life of drugs and brokenness.

Make My Day: An ugly buttoned-up professional taking a troubled youth under his wing might sound like something out of a Clint Eastwood movie; Eastwood even plays another gardener The Mula. (Perhaps he and Narvel have run into each other at conventions.) Maya’s appearance acts as an admirable admission that Schrader doesn’t necessarily have his finger on the pulse of America’s youth: He shows a a tie-dyed t-shirt that reads “No Bad Vibes,” with an ever-present pair of earbuds, is a strange amalgamation of youth cultures over the years.

Schrader should be at least a little part of the joke: “I bet there are some juicy pictures of you on the web,” Mrs. Haverhill ponders one point proudly, a line somewhat characteristic of Schrader’s (intentionally?) stilted dialogue. Haverhill also refers to Maya as “mixed blood,” a surprising expression that reveals Narvel’s changed past.

Because when the camera catches him without his signature neat, fitted clothes, it reveals a nasty surprise: a canvas of Nazi symbols and white power slogans. Narvel was in the depths of this loathsome community at one point, and he did loathsome things for them. Now, however, he is trying to clean, as it were, even if the tats are not easy to wash. Schrader’s insistence on drawing her struggle as similar to Maya’s may rankle some; moreso as the movie goes on, however mildly.

Master Gardener (Magnolia Pictures)

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