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.
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: www.provincetownfilm.org/festival.
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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.