Master Gardener – Age, gender and race collide with explosive results

Writer-Director Paul Schrader’s Master Gardener is a potent tale of a man tormented by his past as a white supremacist gun-for-hire, which captures the racial tensions of contemporary America.

Although not initially envisaged as a trilogy, Master Gardener marks the culmination of a tryptic of films that began in 2017 with First Reformed. In First Reformed, it was the coming climate catastrophe and humanity’s despoliation of the natural world. In The Card Counter, we have Abu Grab and the atrocities in the Middle East. And now, in Master Gardener, the racist white supremacist. 

“There are certain elements that evolve and repeat and a certain structural pattern that evolves and repeats. So, I’ve accepted that I’ve made a trilogy, even if I didn’t set out to,” says Schrader.

Paul Schrader is an American screenwriter and director who was born on July 22,1946, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He earned his B.A. from Calvin College, and his M.A. from UCLA while working as a film critic and writing Transcendental Style in Film. He attended the inaugural class at AFI. He has written or directed over thirty films, including four collaborations with Martin Scorsese. The first, Taxi Driver, won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1978, he directed his first film, Blue Collar. Schrader’s catalogue of film includes American Gigolo, Cat People, Mishima, Affliction and The Card Counter. In 2019, Schrader was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for First Reformed, which he also directed.

Like The Card Counter (2021) before it, Master Gardener is a bold new take on Schrader’s ‘man in a room’ narratives, where a lonely figure, wrestling with his past and hiding behind his day job, waits for something to change.

This final chapter in the trilogy echoes the message of redemption through love. Across the course of the three films, Schrader has evolved the ‘man in the room character’ offering new, intriguing perspectives on
his tales. All three men find redemption, but often at a price. The intentionally ambiguous ending of First Reformed left audiences questioning whether Toller is alive or dead by the film’s end. In The Card Counter, William Tell finds redemption, but his brutal acts lead him to be incarcerated.

With Master Gardener, Schrader offers a different, perhaps more hopeful perspective, reinforcing the idea that the only hope these existential antiheroes have, is to be found in love.

Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton) is the meticulous horticulturist of Gracewood Gardens. He is as much devoted to tending the grounds of this beautiful and historic estate, as he is to pandering to his employer, the wealthy dowager Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). However, chaos enters Narvel’s spartan existence when Mrs Haverhill demands that he take on her wayward and troubled great-niece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) as a new apprentice, unlocking dark secrets from a buried violent past that threaten them all.

The origins of these stories lie in the early years of Schrader’s film career.

“The character first evolved with Taxi Driver (1976), which was an outgrowth of the existential hero of European Fiction,” says Schrader, each chapter of the trilogy concerns men who are facing existential
crises – living lonely lives, hiding behind their day jobs – whether as a reverend, a card player or, as in the case of Master Gardener, a horticulturist.

At the heart of Master Gardener is Narvel Roth, played by Joel Edgerton. “I wanted someone that had a bit of Robert Mitchum about them – who you wouldn’t want to get into a fight with at a bar,” says Schrader. “I wanted that 1950s American physique and Joel’s done that before with Warrior (2011).”
Narvel, like so many of Schrader’s leading men, is a loner. He’s meticulous in his duties, carefully tending the grounds of Gracewood Gardens, a grand house owned by the wealthy dowager, Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). When Haverhill’s much-troubled niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), arrives at Gracewood, Narvel finds himself caught between these two women, as his past, present, and future collide with dramatic force. “

“Whether it’s being a gigolo (American Gigolo, 1980), or a drug dealer (Light Sleeper, 1992), or a gambler (The Card Counter, 2021), or a gardener, it’s about finding a rich metaphor,” says Schrader. “Gardening is a particularly rich metaphor, both positively and negatively.”

Schrader is alluding to a flashback Narvel has when he remembers a white supremacist saying it’s their job to “rip out the weeds”. But it is equally through gardening that Narvel finds redemption.

For Schrader, it all comes back to that man in the room. “It started out with gardening, much like how The Card Counter started out with gambling.” But this was only the start of the creative process, says the
director. “I started asking why this gardener is such a recluse. From there I thought about the Witness Protection Programme, and again you ask the question, ‘Why is he in the programme?’ This mutated to the idea that he was a gun-for-hire for white supremacists.”

“He’s a Proud Boy (an exclusively male North American far-right neo-fascist organization that promotes and engages in political violence), and not only that, he was the Proud Boy who did the dirty work for the other Proud Boys. And then he totally flipped and became the king of the rats. And now he has no life,” says Schrader.

For Schrader, the story must follow a logic: “Asking these questions, meant his isolation became completely understandable. As his handler tells him, you’ll never be free from this shadow, which is echoed when he says that he wears it on his skin every day in the form of tattoos.”

Whilst bearing some similar narrative techniques to previous work, Master Gardener detours from what has come before. “You must create a different social ambiance with each film, and then start moving the
characters around slightly. It’s all about finding new wine for your skins,” says Schrader.

Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver in The Master Gardener. © 2022 Master Gardener US LLC All Rights Reserved

Whilst the framework of the story is akin to previous ‘man in the room’ narratives, the way Schrader manipulates and puts a spin on ideas is what leads to such rich stories. With Master Gardener, there is the central notion of the triad, whether it is sex, race, and gender, or the character triad of Mrs Haverhill, Narvel, and Maya. “Here you have a man caught between two women, one old enough to be his mother, the other young enough to be his daughter,” says Schrader.

This is the first time since Taxi Driver that Schrader has had two women in one of these stories.

“I thought that it would be interesting to see what would happen if Cybill Shepherd’s character, Betsy, had coffee with Jodie Foster’s Iris.”

Schrader is also aware that what was once deemed acceptable on screen has changed dramatically. With this in mind, he wanted to tell his story in a way that was both authentic and reflected contemporary
society. “We no longer accept the idea that a 55-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman is a perfectly normal arrangement,” says Schrader.

Quintessa Swindell and Joel Edgerton in The Master Gardener.© 2022 Master Gardener US LLC All Rights Reserved

In the film, Swindell’s Maya is in her mid-20s, and Narvel is in his late 40s, whilst Mrs Haverhill is older than them both. Schrader wanted these age gaps to lean into the unease of the film. “I wanted the age gaps of the characters to add to the unease of the situation,” says Schrader. Rather than avoid these complex moral issues the director wanted to explore these rich themes in the narrative. “Age, race, and gender made for a good narrative triad, where all the corners of the triangle meet in different ways as they explore the subject matter.” Master Gardener is a film where age, gender, and race collide with explosive results.’