If I had a penny each time I wanted to open my review with that now tattered quote from Rainer Werner Fassbinder about filmmakers being creatures of habitual obsessions compelled to revisit the well and effectively remake the same the movie over and over again by virtue of being haunted by the same artistic demons… Well, I don’t think I’d be Jeff-Bezos-rich, but I’d easily have a pound and some change for my troubles. Which is still a lot and illustrates the chokehold some obsessions hold over many artistic creators.
What is interesting in this regard is that I’d be safe to apply this opening gambit to the last three Paul Schrader films, First Reformed, The Card Counter and Master Gardener, the latter being his newest directorial effort. In fact, in the eyes of many critics these films function as a de facto thematic trilogy, though I believe they reach much further back, through Bringing Out the Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ all the way to Taxi Driver, a movie young Paul Schrader wrote for Martin Scorsese to direct, which – as these recent movies illustrate so perfectly – came to haunt him for decades to come.
The archetype of Travis Bickle, a mentally deranged antihero ever so slowly transmogrifying into a bona fide avenging angel, seems to have taken permanent residence in Paul Schrader’s prefrontal cortex, and over time – especially with other scripts he came to develop – evolved in a multitude of directions, inhabiting the personality of a paramedic on a graveyard shift slowly losing his grip on reality and even Jesus Christ himself, albeit only partially. However, only in recent years Schrader took it upon himself to fully investigate the artistic reach of the archetype which most assuredly simmered within the confines of his mind for many years and transplanted it into the characters of a priest suffering a crisis of faith (First Reformed), a card-counting hustler attempting to evade his own conscience (The Card Counter) and now a reborn white supremacist atoning for the sins of the past by way of connecting with Mother Earth – Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton).
Narvel is a withdrawn and calculated human being seemingly driven by pursuit of service. He works as a horticulturist on the grounds of a seemingly wealthy landowner Mrs Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Though, Narvel’s admittedly agrarian obsessions with keeping connected with the soil and plant life cultivated upon it hide something much darker beneath. It seems that the life of a titular master gardener was a lifeline to Narvel who escaped a life of crime and abandoned a path leading him to self-destruction, the details of which the filmmaker slowly divulges over the course of the entire film. What upsets Narvel’s seemingly delicate status quo keeping his keel even and his past demons at bay is the arrival of Maya (Quintessa Swindell), a young biracial great-niece to his caretaker Mrs Haverhill. As the two get to know each other, Maya’s youthful spirit unlocks something within Narvel and sends him on a mission to relieve her from the perils she may have inadvertently brought upon herself in the past. In doing so, Narvel must effectively reconnect with his own dark secrets, as though to remember he is after all a reincarnation of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver conjured by the imagination of one Paul Schrader, who is quite clearly channelling something personal using this character (and his overall archetype) as a thematic conduit.
At this point, it is no longer a question of what Master Gardener is trying to achieve. It is perfectly straightforward, and the simple fact one can bundle it up with First Reformed and The Card Counter into a thematic triptych aids the viewer in this exploration. In simple terms, this is a narrative receptacle for suppressed emotions where Narvel is a manifestation of penance and repentance. In fact, it wouldn’t be too audacious to suggest that Narvel’s character is morally and thematically tethered to the Travis Bickle archetype and that – hypothetically speaking – he could be Travis Bickle, if we had been granted an opportunity to extrapolate the narrative of Taxi Driver a few decades into the future.
Narvel has all the requisite features of a Travis Bickle in recovery, from the deeply suppressed PTSD awaken from its slumber by Maya’s arrival and the innately obsessive personality that led the actual Travis Bickle onto the path towards deranged lunacy, all the way down to physical manifestations such as the Nazi-inspired tattoos covering his skin and serving as a constant and permanent reminder of his dark past he so desperately tries to cover each day with his gardener’s uniform. In a way, one could perhaps project this tether between Narvel and Travis onto Paul Schrader’s filmography itself and view the entire film as a thematic penance for his youthful indulgences in cinematic exploitation with Blue Collar, Hardcore and – naturally – Taxi Driver itself, which admittedly he did not get to direct himself.
Interestingly, if you pull out and try to take in a more holistic overview of Schrader’s directorial trajectory, you could also imagine that as time went on, his own filmmaking sensibilities evolved to assume more introspective and self-reflective optics, which by filmmaker’s own admission may have been precipitated by his life-long infatuation with Robert Bresson. Thus, Master Gardener functions as a postscript to Taxi Driver filtered through this aesthetic and offers a languid and emotionally charged conversation on how the passage of time and the simple idea of getting older amplifies our deeply seated anxieties and regrets, and that some demons must be eventually put in their place.
Now, this is all well and good, but it all sounds awfully familiar. And that’s because – for the most part – Master Gardener – plays almost exactly like a carbon copy of Schrader’s last film The Card Counter. However, instead of a card-counting silent type we have a gardening silent type. Instead of a young boy we have a teenage girl (perhaps more directly connecting to Jodie Foster’s character from Taxi Driver). Granted, there are tangible (though nuanced) differences between the two films, but especially given how close to one another they are in terms of release dates, it almost feels like Schrader had some left-over batter after making The Card Counter pancakes, so he added spinach and made some more. So, the real question we should ask is if there is a good enough reason for this movie to exist, or in other words, does it distinguish itself enough from The Card Counter to co-exist with it?
This is where the problem is because, as far as I can measure, the two films overlap significantly in terms of their respective thematic reach. While First Reformed also functions in this space, it additionally instigates tangential conversations regarding environmentalism, the saviour complex and crises of faith; and the same cannot be said here. Despite the fact The Card Counter dips into political themes, which Master Gardener does not, these two works do not fit as well if you view them as elements of a triptych. They are each other’s replacement in a triptych that is yet to be completed in the future. However, at this point I am not sure I am ready to sit through another movie attempting to dabble in the same bathwater of post-Taxi Driver reflections.
It is perhaps an indication that – for better or worse – Paul Schrader was effectively alpha-widowed by a movie he wrote in 1976, so much that to this day his work is perturbed by the ripples in spacetime continuum Taxi Driver left in its wake. In isolation, Master Gardener is a contemplative take on the idea of suppressing one’s demons, facing up to one’s shady past and turning one’s own inner demons into a force for good. However, this movie does not exist in isolation and openly acknowledges the simple fact it is joined at the hip to at least two (and quite likely many more) movies Paul Schrader has made before. Therefore, it is lacking severely in originality as the perspective adjustment as compared to The Card Counter (which came out less than two years ago) is insufficient for the movie to stand apart. It is almost as though this film was conjured out of leftover ideas that Schrader contemplated when preparing The Card Counter and convinced himself that the two could coexist without encroaching on its other’s thematic turf. Problem is, they are in competition with each other, while they should instead be complementary in nature.
There is a difference between thematic symmetry that allows two stories to interrogate the same ideas using different optics and essentially retelling the same story twice without imbuing them with enough nuance to allow that distinction to be made. Therefore, as much as the languidity oozing out of Master Gardener may be read as deliberate, its pontifications are somewhat repetitive. Consequently, the entire movie feels as though it was forced into being by a simple desire to complete a trilogy together with First Reformed and The Card Counter without necessarily stopping to think if its existence would add anything meaningful to the already rich conversation the two preceding films successfully engendered.