“Master Gardener,” the latest study of tortured masculinity from writer-director Paul Schrader, opens on a shot of Narvel Roth, the film’s protagonist, nocturnally scribbling his thoughts inside of a diary. For those well-versed in the legendary filmmaker’s body of work, this is a strikingly familiar image.
Schrader, the New Hollywood maverick who vaulted to fame with his screenplay for director Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” has long returned to this visual motif as a sort of Rosetta Stone for his career-long preoccupations. The filmmaker has long been enamored with isolated men, of the sort more inclined to spill their internal ruminations into a private journal than the conventional outlets of human interaction. Oftentimes, these men have dark pasts. Even more frequently, they end up erupting into violence.
In this sense, the filmmaker is treading familiar ground with his new project. Roth, hauntingly portrayed by Joel Edgerton in a remarkably internalized performance, fits the prototypical Schrader character type to a tee. In his role as the head horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens, a grand estate owned by widow Norma Haverhill, Roth tends to his duties with a workmanlike intensity of focus. While he is not socially maladjusted, his reticence initially reads as somewhat suspicious.
Any mysteries around the particulars of his character’s temperament are rather quickly dispelled, however. In flashbacks that are often framed as Roth’s fragmented nightmares, he is revealed to be a reformed white supremacist, a formerly violent member of a repugnantly racist criminal ecosystem.
Despite whatever epiphanies he may have experienced since that period of his life, the atrocities committed in the name of that toxic ideology clearly still haunt his psyche. As if that were not enough, the insignias of various white power movements pepper his torso, tattooed reminders of the moral rot he used to personify.
This checkered past is further complicated by the pilgrimage of Maya, Haverhill’s multiracial grand-niece, to Gracewood Gardens. An adrift drug addict with two deceased parents, Maya finds herself badly needing a sense of direction in her floundering life. Haverhill hopes to grant her distant relative that aforementioned direction with a gardening apprenticeship at Gracewood.
Through her burgeoning attraction to Roth, whose past identity she mostly remains unaware of, Maya ends up receiving much more than a newfound sense of purpose. But their courtship is continually jeopardized by numerous external circumstances, of which Roth’s former white supremacy is only one.
Danger does creep into the periphery of the narrative, almost entirely in the form of two violent drug dealers Maya finds herself mixed up with, but the film is mostly content to remain low-stakes, devoting the majority of its run-time to the exploration of its central relationship. This bond, a tentative courtship that blooms into a complicated romance, is the beating emotional heart of the picture.
For Schrader, this emphasis on human connection is not necessarily a new turn. Many of his previous protagonists have had their isolating routines punctured by romantic foils, developments that have alternately precipitated or staved off later violence.
Even still, there is a tender warmth to “Master Gardener” that remains absolutely bracing. The film takes a remarkably earnest look at humanity’s capacity for forgiveness, which inevitably becomes a defining point of contention in the film’s central romance.
It should be said that this tonal approach does mean that the movie’s brief lurches into dangerous violence can feel a little perfunctory. Oftentimes, explosive bloodshed is the only logical destination for one of the director’s angst-ridden leads. Here, though, the film’s flirtation with thriller convention, culminating in something of a climactic showdown, ends up feeling a bit under-developed. That said, even this makes a certain kind of emotional sense in the context of the film around it.
Schrader has long been a softie, as anyone who has seen his masterful “Light Sleeper” can attest to. But the unrestrained emotion of his newest project still feels invigorating, especially when viewed as a counterpoint to the nihilism that so often fills his cinematic worlds.