Thursday, June 13, 2024

Paul Schrader’s Tilling Of The Soul In “Master Gardener”

Paul Schrader is interested in clubs. In a talk updating his thoughts on his book, “Transcendental Style on Film,” he spoke about his own religious beliefs, how religions are all clubs, and to “watch out” for the clubs. In many ways, his filmography is a survey of clubs. There is the club of the seedy porno underground in “Hardcore,” the world of lunar drug delivery in “Light Sleeper,” and the worker fraternity in “Blue Collar.” Each has unspoken social contracts, expected fashions, and value sets. If these laws are violated, you will be punished. Schrader’s work, among other things, is about punishment, the kind meted out by others and the kind from yourself. Schrader’s movies are a kind of club, too. They don’t have a uniform, but they do have aesthetic principles. They don’t have a code of conduct, but they do share a value system. Schrader was born a Calvinist. He didn’t see a movie until he was 18, saw the light with Bresson’s “Pickpocket,” and then was seduced and corrupted by noir. As a result, his movies are prickly in texture and theme, the answer to his influences. “Master Gardener,” about militant white nationalism sprouting in the thorned Eden of a staffed plantation garden, might be his prickliest yet.

There are jokes Schrader is like Ozu––he keeps remaking the same movie––and it’s not true in either case. It’s by revisiting a general subject or interest in different times, places, tones, and people that it is new again. His characters suffer from poverty, not in wealth but in spirit. They bury their anguish beneath a stillness that can’t conceal who they are or what they will do. They are lonely between man and man but also between man and God. They are called “God’s Lonely Man.” They bear their country’s sins, carrying the wounds of wars, religions, business, and creeds––clubs––and the pathology necessary to try and heal those wounds through blood. It’s only by taking us into torture black sites, high-rises, rectories, and smut theaters that Schrader shows us the phenomenon is categorical in every city and maybe a little in every person, and there is no escaping it.

Master Gardener” is the accidental end to his “Man in a Room” trilogy, composed first of “First Reformed,” then “The Card Counter;” they’re a series of meditations that distill his through-lines of capitalist detritus, vocational unease, and existential yearning. His protagonists burrow into their careers, their chosen path to subsume who they were or who they’re afraid they will become. Here, we have Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), an expert horticulturist who stewards over the botanical Gracewood Gardens, and until he raises his shirt and exposes White Power ink––words, swastikas, flags––appears to be a nurturing, paternal figure to the flora and the staff. I liked him. When he gives a morning pep talk, his staff are attentive and eager. One offers a head nod and wink. They liked him, too. He has all the signs of professionalism and mutual respect, the kind won only by earning it. Later, another staffer says, “I love it when you get romantic like this,” as he talks about the “healing process” between man and Earth, back when gardeners walked on soil with their bare feet. He’s a gardener, but sometimes he can sound like a priest, soulful and watching over his flock, Reverend Toller in overalls and work boots.

Each of Schrader’s “Men in a Room” is less likable than the last, betraying some of the goodwill won in their early moments. “First Reformed’s” Reverend Toller is the most outwardly sympathetic; he’s a grieving father and pastor whose existential awakening is triggered by the relatable terror of irreversible climate change. When he straps a bomb to himself, we understand him––his despair is our despair. “The Card Counter’s” William Tell darkens that picture, with Schrader burdening him with blood and trauma found in the United States’ wars in the Middle East. An Abu Ghraib torturer, Tell was a just-following-orders grunt struggling with complicity, finding hints of redemption by trying to give the son of another Abu Ghraib torturer a better life. In contrast, Narvel Roth feels engineered to antagonize and upset the so-called woke, with Schrader giving him the pipe bomb of a Nazi past to explode whatever easy sympathy had been earned. In flashback, we see he was a member of a militant White Supremacist cell––the worst of Schrader’s wretched clubs––beating and killing non-whites. Until, at least, he sold out his Proud Boy brethren for a spot in witness protection. Roth is a mad-science experiment of presenting the worst possible history for a character––we see him execute a Black preacher at point blank range––and then wrapping him in the arms of love with a woman of a race he used to hate.

That character is Maya, a young woman in her early-mid 20s who we’re told is of “mixed race,” and of the many surprises in “Master Gardener,” we see it’s as much her film as Roth’s. She is “God’s Lonely Woman,” possibly Schrader’s first, pressed under the pains of her past and unsure of her future. Performed by Quintessa Swindell, Maya shows dimension and life that pulls the film’s center of gravity, and Roth himself, towards her. While she’s not the main character (Roth still commands voiceover, flashbacks, and more screen time), “Master Gardener” pivots on her choices as much, or more, than his. She’s the grand-niece of Gracewood Gardens’ autocratic owner, Norma Haverhill, played by Sigourney Weaver in a role unlike any in her career. Norma invites, or demands, Maya to work at Gracewood Gardens under Roth to give her structure and safety after coming into “lifestyle issues,” her dog-whistle for racially implied drug use and crime. Maya’s self-possessed, classically pretty, and intelligent, which quickly wins over the staff. Maybe because of her new comfort or from natural chemistry, she also gives to freely flirting with Roth, unaware of his shocking past. This budding romance is, for many, where the film lives or dies, and unlike “Taxi Driver” or “Affliction,” the possibility of lasting romance isn’t a background plot-arc––it’s front and center, a provocation of moral confusion that tests the credibility of the film’s floral world.

They fall in love. Some have doubted the believability of the relationship, that a woman of color would so freely forgive a killer Nazi’s past sins, regardless of the penance he’s carried out since. From an unbecoming angle, “Master Gardener” looks like another awkward attempt at white dude wish fulfillment, using a biracial woman as a vessel supporting an evil man’s redemption, giving him a baptismal lay to wash away his sins. But I believed in them. I believe two people hungry enough for salvation will feast on second chances. I believe that people in pain and from hard homes find peace where they can find it. I believe the sometimes-false clarity of emotional needs can cut through any red flag. And I believed in the warm ease of Edgerton and Swindell’s performances together. Schrader makes no equivalencies, no judgments; he only assembles his hedge maze of empathy for audiences to feel through. Some will get lost; “Master Gardener” demands a lot. It is imperfect, but too many have overlooked Maya’s forceful agency. She is always the initiator, and she is almost always in control. Richard Brody recently wrote how “Master Gardener” functions as a kind of erotic thriller, and this is never more true than from Maya’s own point of view. That these two people could plant the seeds of love in the soil of hate is what Alan Moore would call a thermodynamic miracle “[…] events with odds against so astronomical they’re effectively impossible, like oxygen spontaneously becoming gold.”

Schrader, aware that his stories don’t always pass the “could this happen” smell test, tends to describe his career in terms of metaphors and fables. Depending on who you ask, the best or worst thing about his movies is how they’re powered by bookish themes rather than genuine drama. Schrader describes “Master Gardener” as a “wonderful what-if” more than something that could actually happen. His characters are sometimes seen as ciphers, mouthpieces for metaphysics and tough-guy philosophizing, who air Schrader’s own doubts, worries, and intellectual impedimenta before they cut off a finger or bind barbed wire around their chest. Along with Terrence Malick and his old collaborator Martin Scorsese, he’s one of the few popular filmmakers today actively engaged in spiritual matters, contriving plots, people, and endings to explore the meanings of our existence as he sees it.

That Schrader’s career is punctuated by contrivance would be a sin for most storytellers, but it’s a quasi-religious virtue for him. Calvinism is built on the idea of predestination, that God’s omniscience not only means God knows who will be saved and who won’t, but God has always known, creating a paradox around agency and contingent free will. God knows what we will do, so we have already been saved or damned before we are born. The Calvinist preacher at the center of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Gilead,” struggles to resolve the theological enigma, saying only “the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.” This question is raised again and again in Schrader’s filmography, sometimes directly in dialogue in “Hardcore” (Season Hubley’s puzzled sex worker querying, “Before you can become saved, God already knows who you are?”) and “Light Sleeper” (David Spade’s tripped out druggie speculating everything we say is “pre-recorded”) but also how his plots zig and zag around unlucky coincidences and quasi-fated encounters. In his “Man in a Room” trilogy, “First Reformed” questions the possibility of an apocalyptic climate crisis against an always-knowing God who does nothing, while “The Card Counter” (like “Uncut Gems“) uses games of chance to gamble against the cosmic odds. William Tell tells us, “What separates Blackjack from other games is that it’s based on dependent events, meaning [the] past affects the probability in the future.”

This gives the improbable union between Roth and Maya a new semi-Holy context, a dues ex machina, either by the artist’s hand of Schrader imposing his desire for spiritual renewal or by God’s own arranging. This narrative move makes more sense as a payoff to Schrader spending decades depicting nihilism, anhedonia, and self-destruction rather than seeing “Master Gardener” in a vacuum. Roth journals, “Gardening is a belief in the future. A belief that things will happen according to a plan.” The garden is a perfect metaphor for new love and old doctrine, capturing the aspect of nature that is preordained with complex interlocking systems and that which is wild and untamable. Roth maps and spreadsheets the garden, an imposition of curated control, but we see it doesn’t always work, that some plants didn’t thrive as expected, and that nature fights easy calculation. But for all who work at Gracewood Gardens, there seems to be a diligence and joint mission that rewards them. Schrader potently characterizes the act of gardening much as Tolstoy does for farming in “Anna Karenina”: that closeness between a person and things that grow can mend the soul.

Limiting Schrader’s films to exercises in apologetics and theme overlooks the festering humanity in his films, which emerges because, rather than in spite of, his focus on the cerebral. Many are studies on male loneliness. “Light Sleeper” is perfectly dialed into the narcotic buzz of late-night city blues, while “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” still his best, mesmerizingly captures the exuberant, ostracized life of Yukio Mishima. To tell his love story, “Master Gardener” deploys a sensuous, intoxicating mood, the existential isolation of Roth and Maya brightened by the Earthly smell of high-quality dirt or a path bordered by roses. The film’s first half, set almost entirely at Gracewood Gardens, is the closest Schrader’s made to a tone-poem since “Mishima,” often transitioning between locations with a camera elevating upwards towards God, peering through brush and stem. Devonté Hynes’ score, composed of lush Vangelis-like layered synths guitar, is equally enveloping. Schrader plays on all our senses; touch, smell, and sight gestures to arouse passion in his leads and us.

The film pivots in the back half, shifting from the honeymoon phase of Roth and Maya’s romance into the hard work of a genuine partnership. As in “Genesis,” they’re ejected from the Garden for tasting the Forbidden Fruit, now focusing on Maya’s past of drug use and abusive dealers. She gets clean. Roth reveals who he is. They make love. This section is the more challenging and digressive, a slow crawl of two broken people finding the courage to open up, not knowing how to trust. He vows to get his White Power tattoos removed to apostatize his horror of a past life. Gracewood is destroyed by the same dealers, and Roth and Maya are punished. They return to Gracewood to rebuild their Eden and to rebuild themselves. The final image is of them slowly dancing to a cover of S.G. Goodman’s “Space and Time,”; “I never want to leave this world / Without saying I love you,” soon to join as husband and wife. Schrader gives Narvel Roth and Maya the happy ending. Jesus could only live as an alternate path in “The Last Temptation of Christ” before marching back to his cross.

It’s an ending that consummates decades of teased happiness, hope, and love in everything from “Taxi Driver” to “The Card Counter” into a picture of lasting, domestic bliss. It’s the reverse of Scorsese, where his late phase is dominated by brutal ruminations of soul, “Master Gardener” is an antidote to the darkness. We’re not asked to forgive or to forget Roth or what he’s done, only if we can abide by this joy. When speaking at Venice last year, Schrader recalled the lyrics to “Space and Time” and said, “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.'” We may not know if their heartening union is in God’s preordained plan, but it is in Schrader’s––and I can abide it with him.

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Brendan Hodges
Brendan Hodges
Culture writer. Bylines at Roger Ebert, Vague Visages and The Metaplex. Lover of the B movie and prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.

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