Paul Schrader has described his new movie, “Master Gardener,” as the third in his “man in a room” trilogy. The first two entries, “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” are centered on men who start on a path of public virtue (the clergy, military service) and discover a hypocritical swamp of vice beneath their honored uniforms. Both films are marked by a compact, potent unity, in which the protagonists’ guilt-ridden, self-scourging devotions are matched by their quasi-apocalyptic rejections of the world as it goes. The director’s terse, pressurized style follows the course of their mounting furies; these are films of radical politics, radical solutions.
But “Master Gardener” is a movie divided against itself. Here, Schrader tells a different kind of story, with a different kind of dramatic contour and focus, and the result is a jolting, ironic disjunction of style and substance. The film situates its repudiations and its disillusionments in its backstory, long before the present-tense action gets going. The protagonist is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), who manages the lavish gardens at the venerable estate owned by the imperious Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). He works with a team of young assistants, whom he instructs in the art of horticulture and the science of botany, while also giving them life lessons by instilling firm order with gentle discipline.
Narvel has a grim past: he was raised as a white supremacist, a neo-Nazi, and has a torso of tattoos—including swastikas, an S.S. insignia, and the phrase “White Pride”—to prove it. Raised to hate, he hated; raised to kill, he killed. But he had a crisis of conscience, turned state’s evidence on his group, and entered a witness-protection program. His government handler, Deputy U.S. Marshal Neruda (Esai Morales), arranged for his job with Norma, who is aware of his background. Narvel is reformed, ashamed, penitent, and squared away in the eyes of the law. But he has a vast spiritual and moral debt that he confronts in his obsessive journal writing, and that he hopes to acknowledge with his good works in maintaining the garden (and the charity projects that it benefits) and in mentoring youths. His bearing is stiffly formal: his hair is slicked down, with a disciplined part, and, when not in work clothes, he dresses with severity and displays clipped manners to match. It’s as if his rigid order and reserve were sealing any cracks through which his inner life could risk exposure.
But Narvel has no secrets from Norma. She’s not just his benefactor but also his lover, or, rather, he’s something like her gigolo. He lives in a cottage on her estate, only a short walk from her mansion-like “grand house”; when she summons him to dinner, he dresses up and primps, and the evening ends with her ushering him upstairs, to her bedroom, for sex. There, she insists that Narvel, whom she addresses as “sweet pea,” undress so that she can gaze at his horrifying tattoos; the implication is that they turn her on. How Narvel feels about this liaison is never made explicit. Though entries from his journal are heard in voice-over as he writes them, none of them confront this relationship. But the movie nonetheless offers an idea of where he stands by way of the turn of events that gives the drama its mainspring.
Norma gets word that her grandniece Maya Core (Quintessa Swindell), who’s in her mid-twenties, is in trouble and at loose ends. To get her out of trouble and to tauten her behavior, Norma asks Narvel to take Maya on as an apprentice. Norma says that Maya is of “mixed blood” and runs through the family backstory of distrust and estrangement; Narvel welcomes her but finds her both testy and guarded. Norma keeps her at a distance, and conflict quickly arises between them. Eliding spoilers, Narvel gets Maya out of some trouble with a combination of social pressure, tough love, and physical violence. He also falls in love with her. (Norma calls him a Humbert Humbert living a “Lolita”-like fantasy.) He senses that Maya loves him, too; when complications arise, they take to the road and become lovers.
The movie’s irony is in the faux unity of substance and style. Schrader’s direction, with its repertory of images realized by the cinematographer Alexander Dynan, is as severe, strict, and restrained as his protagonist’s sharply disciplined manner. Despite its starkly lucid surfaces, the film is elusive, quizzical, practically iridescent. Schrader appears no more interested in the mind-set of neo-Nazism than he is in whatever political and social ideals Narvel now holds instead. My impression is that the choice of Narvel’s awful backstory is symbolic. The very notion of race hatred is presented with no wider context or explicit discussion, no connection to any fuller range of experience or personal story. Rather, Schrader appears to have selected it as the worst of possible traits, by the lights of progressive art-house audiences, so that he could assert to his viewers the possibility of redemption from such ultimate evil, through a change of heart, good works, and a sense of self-punishing submission to the terms and conditions of one’s new life. Moreover, Narvel’s sexual relationship with Norma comes off as purely mechanical, a screenplay device that is among the self-abasing subjections he endures on his road to repentance. (He never expresses a word or a grimace of displeasure or a hint of self-loathing; the intuition is left to the viewer.) Similarly, Narvel’s turn to violence on Maya’s behalf—a one-directional violence that, unlike the scenes of brutality in “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” comes at no risk or price to the protagonist—seems to be a mere plot point.
On my first viewing of “Master Gardener” (when it was shown at the New York Film Festival, last fall), the relationship between Narvel and Maya struck me as a perfunctory and nearly content-free rapport that crudely and condescendingly underlined Narvel’s absence of prejudice, even as it treated Maya as merely a two-dimensional symbol of his ultimate moral well-being. Upon rewatching “Master Gardener,” now that it’s in theatrical release, this relationship comes off as the center of the movie, and Maya comes off as its belatedly arriving protagonist. A rewatching reëmphasizes the matter of who takes the lead in the coupling, and how, and under what circumstances. Far from being a political drama, or one of a political miscreant’s redemption, “Master Gardener” seems more like an erotic thriller, in which Narvel is a mere pawn in a grudge match of power between Norma and Maya, with the women’s characteristics and Narvel’s background serving only as the neutral, formally crafted game board on which bold tactics and subtle strategies are played out. The movie’s politics are, above all, sexual, and its moral stakes have nothing to do with Narvel’s emergence from a swamp of hatred.
Though cited as the third entry in Schrader’s “man in a room” cycle, “Master Gardener” is altogether different from the other two—it’s a “man and a woman in a room” movie. Rather than following in the vein of its immediate predecessors, it echoes one of Schrader’s much earlier masterworks: here, four decades after making “American Gigolo,” the director is offering a response to his own work. In that earlier film, a male sex worker learns not to do for money what should only be done for love. Now Schrader puts other terms in the place of money—he reveals modes of supposed penance and moral redemption that are just as mercenary and self-interested. And, as in “American Gigolo,” the protagonist of “Master Gardener” learns his lesson in love mainly as the passive subject of coin tosses of fate. As for the rest of the themes, the matters of history and of race, of mentorship and of gardening, they are, for better or worse, about as ornamental and as instrumental as the earlier film’s Armani clothing and electro-disco soundtrack: outward-directed, audience-grabbing icons of the times. ♦