In 1965 a 19-year-old Paul Schrader wrote the following in The Chimes, the student newspaper of Calvin University, in a review of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film Ordet:
“Dreyer makes one realize that God does not exist because there is a miracle, but that God exists and therefore there can be miracles… It is a difficult thing to do, but once done it is shattering.”
Schrader’s freshman-year reverence for the patient journey towards transcendence in Dreyer’s work feels prescient of the film career Schrader would go on to have over the next 50 years. He wrote this after a childhood in the Christian Reformed Church that denied him movies—as the CRC denigrated film as a worldly amusement unfit for Christian life from 1928 until the mid-1960s—and before he became one of the definitive screenwriters of 1970s Hollywood, writing screenplays such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. His work has always been severe, frequently focusing on lonely men and their metaphorical descent into hell—never showing a miracle before the need for one, offering a disruptive and desperate view of grace.
Master Gardener, the latest film written and directed by Schrader, continues this legacy, while also standing out as his most tender and sentimental work to date.
The film tells the story of Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a reforming white-supremacist who is in witness protection after testifying against his neo-Nazi cell. Roth works as the horticulturist for a large estate owned by a wealthy dowager named Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver) in Louisiana, where he is charged with mentoring and employing Maya (Quintessa Swindell), Norma’s niece through her estranged and deceased sister. He journals at night, reflecting on the ordered, methodical, and forward-looking practice of gardening. He hides the evidence of his past—tattoos depicting hateful symbols and slogans—beneath his plain and protective gardening uniform. Eventually he and Maya, who is Black, begin to fall in love, forcing Roth to reveal his past and beg for forgiveness.
The script of Master Gardener is obsessed with type and categorization, amplified by its setting on an austere estate in the deep south, a purgatory-like location caught between an overtly violent past and a liberated future. Like the gardens Roth tends to, everything in Norma’s world is classifiable and controllable—she names her outdoor pet “Porch Dog,” and callously refers to Maya as “mixed-blood.” Elsewhere in the story, sloganeering t-shirts that say things like, “We should all be feminists,” place characters neatly into viewpoints that contrast with Roth’s past while falling short of offering him absolution. “You can’t spreadsheet nature. It will always surprise you,” an employee reminds Roth at the beginning of the film, a moment that foreshadows the category-defying freedom he and Maya will find with each other.
Hanging the deliverance of a neo-Nazi on the love and forgiveness of a Black woman likely makes Master Gardener a non-starter for many audiences—it’s an extreme premise that risks miscalculating complex issues. But it also feels necessary for this film, which stands out among Schrader’s recent works like 2017’s First Reformed and 2021’s The Card Counter. These films were appropriately stark and bare, offering no reprieve from the dark rooms that housed their characters, an aesthetic that was powerful and fully in step with the nature of those films. Master Gardener, in contrast, is serene and graceful throughout. The film’s score is uncharacteristically tranquil; the camera often captures the characters walking through the gardens in wide-shots, showing the curated beauty of the gardens bleeding into the untamed and sinewy canopy of ancient oak trees—a natural garden just out of reach of those on the ground. These choices, and the central metaphor of gardening, provide the proper trellis to support the film's intense optimism, and also stand as testaments for Schrader’s faith in the art of filmmaking as a vehicle for allowing one to believe in that which is unbelievable.
Master Gardener situates itself near grace more comfortably than Paul Schrader has ever allowed in his work before, leaving his broken character in the arms of the salvation he’s normally only reaching for—in the context of both the art and the artist, it stands as a difficult, shattering miracle. (Magnolia Pictures. Rated R for language, brief sexual content and nudity. Available for rent on Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime)