Paul Schrader has had a remarkably prolific career—a half-century as a writer, almost as long as a director—always a curious seeker of the moral and the ineffable: using the components of the feature-film format to find flaws, and perhaps, to forgive them, in the human form, as existential crises are identified and faced. The seventy-six-year-old Michigan native says in the cover interview of the June 2023 issue of Sight & Sound that “Taxi Driver” (1976, Martin Scorsese) “became the template” for much of his self-generated work, “to learn about the self by finding a metaphor that’s not at all like you—gigolo, drug dealer, minister, card player, gardener—and using him the way Bresson used pickpockets.”
Metaphors, parables, fables: Schrader is always in retreat from simple screen naturalism, that elemental progression of plot and physical action of under two hours duration. The most recent of his twenty-three movies, “First Reformed” (2017), “Card Counter” (2021) and now “Master Gardener,” are restrained by budget, refined in production details, gainfully embracing the elements that have structured his earlier output. Each man a percolating solitary, given to troubled sleep and dreams of haunting specificity: “We’re gardeners, we pull out the weeds.”
Schrader used to say that ambiguity was permitted in American pictures only at lower fiscal reaches, that at a certain level, say, which then meant $10-$12 million, you had to dress your characters in white hats and black hats. That level’s lowered, to as little as $2 million on movies shot in twenty days or so. But he holds control: in this loose trilogy, he cleanses his work of all but his most basal concerns, working from his “man in a room” fixation: a figure, lost, Dostoyevskian in extremis, who tries to empty his skull of unwanted thoughts by putting them to paper, which stream in voiceover: “Gardening is a belief in the future, a belief that things will happen according to plan… that change will come in its due time.”
He hugs hard: “‘Master Gardener’ is about a horticulturist torn between two women, one old enough to be his mother [Sigourney Weaver] and the other young enough to be his daughter [Quintessa Swindell],” Schrader says of the story’s germination. “I was thinking about that guy, but then two women showed up. He is having romantic relations with both, but what I liked the most is that now, they can talk to each other. What would happen in ‘Taxi Driver’ if Cybill Shepherd and Jodie Foster went out to get coffee?”
The man in question bears a supple carapace suggestive to those in the know: he has taken on an identity as a gardener to ink over a violent past. (It signifies as neatly as Travis Bickle’s rig in all his incarnations.)
Even Schrader’s title sequence, containing luscious flowers in extreme close-up in rapid-motion bloom, conveys growth in violent motion. Measured and placid for the most part, the potential for violence simmers yet.
Narvel Roth tends Gracewood, the gardens of heiress Norma Haverhill: he’s as quiet and terse as the patterned grounds are about the soil’s history as a plantation. Joel Edgerton, cast, the filmmaker says, for his meaty bulk akin to a Robert Mitchum slap of beef, signals his hidden origins: he’s got the tight haircut and black boots and black leather near-duster from the get-go. (Even a pair of red-handled pruning shears in a coveralls pocket suggest the symbols we later see on his body.)
The most recent three films are also a trilogy of terroir; the dirt of earth, the filth of Abu Ghraib, the garden of inherited wealth that pretends to the Edenic. This is the land a man finds himself upon. Narvel has a moment where he’s barefoot on the “soil,” described a time when man’s body touched earth after weeds were pulled from the garden. “Every seed is a plant waiting to be unlocked,” he says. Schrader piles the fragrant metaphors. “Given the right conditions, seeds can last indefinitely.”
Does that apply to Narvel? Does hate last forever? The arrival of Norma’s niece, Maya—young, biracial, using, with her own ticklish finger henna tattoos—brings to bloom past and future. Backstory? Psychological constructs? They don’t trouble Schrader.
The dialogue can seem blunt, but it’s basic screenwriting that sounds long after, the blank verse of post-1970s screenwriting, the ping and pong on questions leveled and answers floated, sometimes as other questions, other times as pauses, momentary silence, and then a change of subject. Norma’s conversation contains cracked exposition but also sounds out concerns: “Money is the best manure”; “I’m an old woman and I sometimes forget what’s proper”; “And I’m the fucking Queen of Scotland.” Weaver bites her lines off like a piece of thread destined for a sampler.
Visual elements are simple yet often bold: in the master house, there is wallpaper patterned with chalked jellyfish on baize-green ground; the flowers are presented as pinpoint splats of color like squibs detonating in a shootout. There is a dreamt image of a highway’s verge by night blossoming and turning to garden, leaving civilization behind, racing into a bower of bloom. There is also a shot lifted from one of the most beautiful of Schrader’s touchstones, Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” (1970). Maya sits on a bed in an unadorned motel room, realizations washing over her in the physicalized form of the light from headlamps of a passing car turning through venetian blinds, stroking, striating, elevating.
Regeneration across generations is the hope in both the metaphors of “The Master Gardener” and in its resolution: Schrader’s taste in music has always been underrated, despite Jack Nitzsche’s sledge-heavy blues in “Blue Collar” (1978) or Giorgio Moroder and Blondie’s contribution to “American Gigolo” (1980) and the most recent films have been no exception. The simple score by Devonté Hynes leads toward a dance to life, a flowering of song, a cover of S.G. Goodman’s “Space and Time” by Mereba:
I never wanna leave this world
Without saying I love you
Without saying what you mean to me
You know it makes me happy
Oh, when we share this space and time
Want you to know you shaped this heart of mine
And I never wanna leave this world
Oh, without saying I love you
Schrader is preparing another picture.
“Master Gardener” is now playing at River East and suburban locations.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His multimedia history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” will be published soon. Previews of the project are on Twitter and on Instagram as Ghost Signs Chicago. More photography on Instagram.