‘The Master Gardener’ (2023) is released, the latest film by writer-director Paul Schrader, who completes with it a spiritual trilogy of stories about men seeking redemption in a lost America in the decline of their own convictions. After ‘The Reverend’ and ‘The Card Counter’ he now closes his journey following the same coordinates as the previous ones, once again developing his obsessions in a classic film noir framework.
In all three cases we have an enigmatic protagonist, who in this case embodies Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth, a former white supremacist who has reinvented himself as a meticulous horticulturist for a wealthy widow, Mrs. Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Her life is turned upside down when he takes on Mrs.’s great-niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), as her apprentice and he soon develops mixed feelings for her, as her past comes back to haunt him.
The film is another exploration of redemption, identity, and the legacy of hate that plays on a premise not so dissimilar to “American History X,” but with a look at the sins that refuse to disappear more subtle, trying to understand the character on a human level in a way that is more provocative than in the previous two films. That a murderous neo-Nazi narrates the film from beginning to end forces us to understand his point of view, whether or not we are willing to forgive his past.
Schrader’s script reserves its information with little drops and, between its characteristic existential angst and moral ambiguity, there is hidden a patient thriller, in no rush to uncover the mystery surrounding Edgerton’s character, who offers a complex and nuanced portrayal of a man who seeks to escape his demons by cultivating beauty in a garden. That premise creates even more parallels with ‘The Card Counter’, substituting farming for gambling, with the same metaphorical lessons from both worlds delivered in voiceover.
Supremacism and class structures
In both, the characters write their diaries in their sober bedrooms, and find a ball of oxygen in (interracial) love. While Oscar Isaac hides a past as a member of the soldiers in charge of the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Narvel represents racist America, If the previous one played with the shame of the Bush administration, this one does it with the Trump era, just like ‘Taxi Driver’ picked up Vietnam. And if in ‘The Reverend’ he confronted religion and its relationship with fanatical extremism, introducing the problem of climate change, in ‘The Master Gardener’ he also hovers over the opium crisis and class dynamics.
Schrader makes this point through Weaver’s character, stoic as Mrs. Haverhill, a cold and domineering figure who hides her own secrets and whose power over Narvel creates a very clever dynamic of parallels in the film with Maya, the young grandniece who turns out to be mixed race. A detail as trivial as it is key to understanding the simultaneous conflicts that the script raisessince Haverhill is no less a survivor of the landed women of the South, her garden is even suggested as a new cotton field.
The situation of Narvel at his mercy has something perverse, since he equates the supremacist with the slave, evidencing that in America evil has multiplied vertically, despite the fact that deep down the garden workers will continue to be workers, while the owners, they will carry the whip as long as they have the power. This triangle carries the added irony of having seen Edgerton in the story of the first interracial marriage in ‘Loving’, like that, love has more to do with their class position than the racial element.
About impossible second chances
The challenge here is in forgiveness and love as fertile soil so that the seeds of hate can germinate into something beautiful, a metaphor as Manichean as it is effective in the gloomy context, with an unbreathable atmosphere in which the story is set. The most intense moment of the film presents the inexcusable with an intimate scene that is surprisingly similar, not only in its atmosphere and staging, to the one proposed by the author in ‘The Panther Woman’, in which more than sex there is an abyss of tension to go through without moorings.
The trailers may be misleading, as ‘The Master Gardener’ is not your typical crime thriller, but rather a character drama, with the same stylish and atmospheric direction as the previous two in the trilogy, with a haunting score by Devonté Hynes. that maintains the residue of pain and uncertainty. The idea of revenge and the reaction that in the previous ones explodes as something inevitable In this, it finally takes a less predictable direction based on a determinism marked on the skin but not on the soul.
‘The Master Gardener’ completes a trilogy where the author draws a broken nation, with no room for affection, and offers a romantic look, in which its characters reemerge as survivors of an apocalypse who must ignore their own nature to make something good bloom from poisoned seeds, breaking all the noir mannerisms it has played with to show a bud of raw humanism, a beautiful petal in the air in the hope of offering a second chance to save a devoured society by the stagnant roots of evil.
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