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Schrader’s garden no Eden; P’town fest to open – Play It Again, Tim

Master Gardener
Written by Tim Miller

Paul Schrader’s films often involve guilt and the desire for redemption. Flawed characters take on the role of savior, usually with violent results.

That’s, of course, an oversimplification of the filmmaker’s work. But Schrader, from a strict Calvinist background (he reportedly saw his first film at 17), certainly imbues most of his films, whether blatantly or symbolically, with religious themes as they collide with life’s harsh realities. His credits include, as screenwriter, “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and, as writer-director, “Hardcore,” “American Gigolo,” “Affliction,” “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter.”

His latest film, “Master Gardener” (R, 111 minutes, in theaters) fits into Schrader’s pattern. The title character, Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), works as the head horticulturist on the estate of wealthy widow Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Narvel has a dark past, and he has reinvented himself as a private paternal figure who oversees the estate’s outdoor staff while mostly isolating himself from the rest of the world.

Master Gardener

Joel Edgerton and Quintessa Swindell appear in a scene from Paul Schrader’s “Master Gardener.” (Magnolia Pictures)

Norma asks Narvel for a favor: to take on her 20ish niece, Maya Core (Quintessa Swindell), as an apprentice. Narvel agrees and gradually bonds with the young woman. Maya has her own struggles, however, and Narvel must choose whether to venture outside the estate – risking the safe existence he has built there – in order to save her.

Narvel’s story wraps up a little too neatly. That’s OK, though, because it’s what Narvel is going through – the conflicts, the emotions, the evolution – that’s important here, rather than how things turn out.

Compellingly restrained, Edgerton creates a character who has carefully constructed a persona and lifestyle that will allow him to survive. Narvel still must compromise (his duties apparently include servicing Norma’s sexual needs), but overall he seems content, even thankful, for a quiet life in which he helps bring out the beauty in nature. But then he chooses to become a gardener in another sense, as he tries to help Maya bloom.

Maybe Schrader is a gardener, too. He sees a lot of ugliness in the world. But his tortured, guilt-ridden characters – whether Ethan Hawke’s minister in “First Reformed,” Oscar Isaac’s gambler/vet in “The Card Counter” or Narvel in “Master Gardener” – ultimately try to take a stand, try to do the right thing, with varying degrees of success/failure.

Regardless of the outcome, they – and Schrader – tend to their patch of reality the best they can.

Maybe that’s all any of us can do. ***½ (out of four)

Provincetown film fest starts Wednesday

This is one of my favorite weeks of the year. The 25th annual Provincetown International Film Festival kicks off on Wednesday, June 16, and continues through Sunday, June 18.

More than 80 movies will be screened – and you can count on some of them being about the best of the year. Last year, for instance, the fest showed “My Old School” and “Emily the Criminal,” both among my top five films of 2022.

There also are parties, panel discussions, awards and other events. Billy Porter, Carson Kressley are among the celebs taking part. And, of course, Provincetown itself is one of the main attractions.

More info:

** Click here for  Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **

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Tim Miller

Tim Miller, Movie Critic

Tim Miller is co-president of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He teaches film and journalism at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.

About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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