Master Gardener Review: Paul Schrader's Late Career Hot Streak Is In Full Bloom [Venice]

Fans of filmmaker Paul Schrader know the drill by now, especially in the last five fertile years of his career. The "Taxi Driver" screenwriter and "First Reformed" director loves nothing more than a man in a room alone with his thoughts, a journal, and a glass of liquor darker than his soul. Yet his latest riff on themes of regret and salvation, "Master Gardener," reminds that Schrader is not resting on his laurels. He's still finding interesting variations within the structure.

"Master Gardener" asks what happens after the climactic conclusions of many a Schrader film where his protagonists find the social and spiritual sanctification that they self-flagellate to receive. By the time the film introduces Joel Edgerton's titular horticulturist, he's already undergone a lifetime's worth of bad behavior from which he sought escape and penance. And yet one rebirth does not free him from repeating the cycle once more. Here, Schrader explores what happens when resurrection is not the end of a narrative but the beginning of another to riveting effect.

Same old Schrader

It quickly becomes clear, though, that Edgerton's Narvel Roth has plenty to atone for. This former neo-Nazi took many lives in his previous profession as a hitman for his ethno-nationalist encampment. He finds the only way out is to turn informant for law enforcement seeking to bust up his group. It's never entirely clear how much Narvel disavows the ideology to which he once devoted himself or if he could simply no longer stomach the work. A tattooed torso of white supremacist symbols and slogans leaves plenty of ambiguity. He could still believe it underneath. Or maybe he leaves it as a palpable reminder of a past full of consequences he can never fully erase, a typically sullen and self-defeating move for Schrader's tortured protagonists.

Nonetheless, Narvel now tends to flowers rather than grudges in his new role at Gracewood Gardens. This pet project for the wealthy Southern belle Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver going full wealthy Trump voter camp) becomes a new way to apply his fastidious focus to life. He's tactile in his oversight of the plants while also bringing cerebral craftsmanship to bear as well, something he intones through his matter-of-fact journaling delivered by Edgerton as interior monologue. As usual, the words reveal as much as they conceal, with Narvel latently yearning to transfer his mastery of knowledge into a mastery of his fate.

Edgerton proves incredibly skillful at pulling off the taciturn brooding necessary to pull off the festering introspection of a Schrader antihero. Unlike Oscar Isaac, whose chilly reserve in last year's "The Card Counter" could come across as slick, there's no such slickness from Narvel. His stone-faced stoicism reflects the steeled heart and focused mind guiding his ascetic attitudes.

Though Narvel balances on a steady emotional plane, the people around him do their best to disrupt his equilibrium. His relationship with Norma is strange from the start. She dubs him "Sweet Pea," a pet name as patronizing as it is affectionate, and relishes the control she wields over him out of seeming knowledge of his prior life. Norma can both infantilize him like a child in her debt and wield her sexuality as a cudgel to secure his submission. When she sees his markings, they put no damper on her desire – slyly suggesting the only daylight between Narvel and Norma's prejudices is that he wears them more openly.

Complicated characters and morality

The delicate dance of Norma's control begins to pick up tempo with the arrival of her "mixed blood" grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a twentysomething seeking some stability of her own amidst addiction and loss. Needless to say, Schrader knows what he's doing by introducing the dynamic of a neo-Nazi educating and wooing a young biracial woman. It's an arrow shot straight into the discourse meant to strike right at the heart of moralists.

But Schrader uses extreme cases like this not as pure provocation. "Master Gardener" asks its audience to contemplate the limits of forgiveness, requiring viewers to bend their acceptability until it nearly breaks. Are those who preach a gospel of redemption, be it spiritual or secular, willing to extend it here?

The film can meander a bit in its third act as Narvel and Maya conflate their needs for sexual and soulful validation on a winding road trip that brings them into open conflict with their demons. But that circling structure matches Schrader's cyclical interpretation of salvation. Here, it's not a switch flipped but rather a layered process of self-sacrifice and mortification. Life brought Narvel to his knees once, but his need for an even more personal absolution has him quite literally prostrating himself before Maya.

Even if "Master Gardener" can feel like a bit of a potboiler moral drama, the heat generated is proof that Schrader can still bring the fire. The filmmaker grapples thornily and thoughtfully with difficult issues and destructive people, finding new ways to approach the questions that still haunt him.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10