In hindsight, Paul Schrader’s career has been a repeated jettisoning and reappropriation of extraneous artiness, new off-kilter filmic shapes of inscrutable quality emerging at an otherwise reliable clip, especially this past decade. 2017’s First Reformed, something of a critical watershed, is the ostensible perfect result of this equation, yet its academy-ratioed bleakness, Bergman transpositions, and A24 distribution gave it a whiff of authority that other Schrader films before (and after) have wisely refused. Last year’s The Card Counter, and now Master Gardener, share a common, plastic stiltedness with 2013’s wrongly maligned The Canyons, and are the closest the director has come to replicating the remarkable purity of his greatest film, 1992’s Light Sleeper, where a suffocating mix of reprehensibility and plain stupidity on the part of the characters peaks, and then gradually evaporates.
The sequencing of events that engender these shifts vary from film to film, Schrader’s handful of motifs attracting innumerable reactions as they reposition themselves. Master Gardener attaches its loose system of lonely, spiritual reformees, protégées, and exploitative overseers to a newly expressed purview from a director who assumed he wouldn’t live as long as he has: “I used to be an artist who never wanted to leave this world without saying fuck you, and now I’m an artist who never wants to leave this world without saying I love you.”
The Man in the Room this time around is the wildly named Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who, rather than enact a routine that hollows him out, à la Light Sleeper or The Card Counter, is instead ensconced within Louisiana’s Gracewood Gardens, the eponymous horticulturist under the auspices of dowager Norma Havervill (Sigourney Weaver). Schrader has before allowed the diaries of his protagonists to circle the drain with acknowledgedly bullshit philosophy, and Narvel’s musings are no different, save for the fact that they have a strong undergirding of gardening science and history. The aimlessness has already been rectified, and even in the resulting asceticism, the stakes are still high. An ex-white supremacist who’s arrived at this vocation at the behest of witness protection, Narvel only superficially atones for his past — conveyed with queasily quickfire snatches of strung-out violence — staring at his sundry offensible tattoos at night, which are otherwise hidden under turtlenecks by day.
Becoming a mentor to Norma’s grand-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Narvel feels a burgeoning kinship with the young woman, whose covert drug habit he nevertheless recognizes, himself once being an addict. She’s also ensnared in an on-and-off relationship with an abusive dealer, a system of exploitation that draws out his own repressed agony, clearly tiring of being a sexual curiosity to Norma, as well as adhering to a regimented self-punishment that benefits only him. Schrader’s methods of narrative contextualization are expressionistic — distorted angles and bludgeoning montage — and thus, the conflation of past and present merely depict in lieu of explaining, so that Master Gardener isn’t some American History X-esque, “both-sides” polemic, but a study of protracted aftermath, and the dormancy of sin. When Maya lifts Narvel’s shirt, the tattoos are briefly glimpsed as if menacing portents for the climax of a more shallow film; he promptly pulls the fabric back down and runs from her, pawing at the inked spots of his body as if they were bee stings.
Schrader’s recent penchant for unblemished digital catalogs all these loaded interactions with an unnerving clarity, and the film itself is largely made up of markedly depopulated two-shots, the hotels and diners even emptier than those in The Card Counter. That pesky Ozu influence actually has one of its more viable manifestations, empty chairs often arranged on a perfectly diagonal axis, a rigorously maintained minutiae that makes do with only a few elements. Some of the steadier members of the Schrader corpus belong to Master Gardener, but the characteristic desperation is still registered physically, in extreme long shots that isolate figures within unnerving symmetry, and Steadicam work that is as invasive as it is spectral. This visual assuredness, more skeletal than ever, mirrors the adopted monasticism, and as the façade suffers hair-slivers, the cuts begin to fall out of any sort of traceable rhythm, and the camera probes more, like the quite distressing scene in which Narvel and Maya drive in circles around her apartment to avoid her abusers, who are just around the corner, a surveillance-like angle sustained from the back of the pickup.
The curious thing about every new Schrader film is the anticipation of its violent and momentary deluge, though he nowhere near resembles an action director. He’s obsessed with circumstantial bloodshed, which achieves a religiosity that is otherwise thought impossible in his extremely secular filmic worlds. He spares judgment on whether or not these acts constitute the much-desired redemption, urging us to look backward in a film whose preceding two acts played as ancillary on first blush. The real climax is a dream of unspecified ownership, where a nighttime highway is suddenly in endearingly pixelated bloom, an obvious metaphor made paradoxically tangible by its overt digitalness. As he does with his characters, Schrader empties out his films so that only platitudes remain — but what an affecting example of the moral void that continues to be.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.