There’s not much that’s intentionally funny about Narvel Roth, the tormented hero of Master Gardener — unless you count his name, which is memorable in a way that seems counterproductive for a guy in witness protection. Narvel, played with stolid restraint by Joel Edgerton, is head horticulturist at a privately owned Louisiana garden and a man who’s severe in every aspect of his life — from his professional demeanor to his meticulously slicked hairstyle. He’s also a reformed white supremacist whose skin is littered with tattooed traces of his past life. Still, the audience at the New York Film Festival last fall couldn’t help but laugh when he was introduced writing alone at a desk in the dark like a good Paul Schrader protagonist. Schrader has had a thing for solitary, obsessive characters throughout his long career as a writer and director — most famously, Travis Bickle, scrawling out praise for the cleansing rain from the table in his shithole studio — but in recent years, this penchant has become a focal point and, maybe, a fixation.
In 2017, there was an exquisite Ethan Hawke as Ernst Toller in First Reformed, an upstate New York pastor dooming out over a crisis of faith and climate despair. In 2021, there was Oscar Isaac as William Tell, a buttoned-up itinerant gambler who once tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib in The Card Counter. These are movies about people who cut themselves off from the world while pretending this gives them a clearer view on it, and they’re both terrific, though Master Gardener — the third in what has been referenced as Schrader’s God’s Lonely Man trilogy — is not. The same elements are present: the solitary main character, the rituals, the burst of violence, the claustrophobic journaling on the movie’s chosen topic, the woman’s love extended like the hand of grace. What’s missing is the conviction — replaced with an unmistakable impatience to get past the guilt. Master Gardener plays less like a thematic finale and more like the director is trying to exorcise himself of his perpetual idée fixe. It’s as though God’s lonely man has finally gotten sick of his own company, too, having been secretly eager to stop brooding, get out of the house, and maybe get laid.
Watching Master Gardener, the idea that the film is destined to rile up the crowds feels more wistful than likely. It is, yes, about a young Black woman who falls for a former neo-Nazi twice her age, and yet its attempts to incite are more stilted than provocative. When the film dabbles in contemporary discourse — Narvel mentions “a sexist meme” — it sounds like someone phonetically reciting a phrase from a language they don’t speak, and its depictions of race and racist violence feel downright abstract. In The Card Counter, when William’s military past erupts into the present, it’s as a vivid sensory hellscape filmed via fish-eye lens. In contrast, Narvel’s backstory emerges in disjointed bursts, and he talks about the hatred he once felt as though it were a cold he got over. It’s a placeholder for sin — something Maya can be angry about while easily grokking it as something he has left behind.
Master Gardener is peppered with close-ups of bright florals and other plant life, but whenever the camera pulls back, it’s evident that the film was shot on leaf-strewn, off-season grounds that look dull and patchy through cinematographer Alexander Dynan’s lens. There’s a similar gap between what the film seems to want to do with Narvel and what it ultimately puts onscreen. It may have the contours of a story about reckoning and redemption, but it barely goes through the motions of grappling with its main character’s racial animus. It instead wants, almost petulantly, for him to be forgiven, released from whatever penance he owes and from his near-monastic lifestyle. Master Gardener isn’t necessarily Schrader’s last film, but it feels more like a twilight movie than First Reformed or The Card Counter did, less because it’s out of touch than because it’s in such a hurry to move on. It’s tolerable only because Schrader seems to have moved on himself, looking for what’s next — hopefully outside of those dark rooms.