Paul Schrader

Master Gardener


Cameo Cinema, Edinburgh

Paul Schrader is the man who wrote Taxi Driver, which became one of Martin Scorcese’s most celebrated films – but, as a director, Schrader’s career has been rather less spectacular. He prefers to concentrate on smaller stories that feature flawed protagonists who harbour dark secrets. Master Gardener, which forms a kind of loose trilogy with his earlier efforts, First Reformed and The Card Counter, seems to follow the same format.

The master gardener of the title is Narvel Roth (Joel Edgerton), a skilled horticulturalist who works on the extensive estate (clearly a former plantation) owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he enjoys (if that’s the right word) the occasional sexual encounter, a process which seems to hark back to some kind of mistress/slave tradition. Narvel is nonplussed when Norma asks him to take on a new trainee, her great niece, Maya (Quintessa Swindell), who – Norma tells him – has been through ‘some issues’, and whom she has barely ever met.

Maya is a mixed race woman in her twenties and we soon discover that her foremost issue is that she’s a drug addict. She and Roth hit it off, despite the fact that he has a habit of distilling everything down to ponderous lectures about the nurture of plants – but we have already been tipped off, via the plethora of bizarre tattoos on Narvel’s torso, that he’s had a very different life before he became a gardener, one in which the swastika featured prominently. When Maya is attacked by a drug dealer, Roth takes it upon himself to be her protector – a move that incurs Norma’s anger.

There are several elements here that really don’t convince. For one thing, Maya must be the most wholesome looking drug addict in history, while her ‘beating up’ comes down to a polite cut on her bottom lip. Norma’s vitriolic reaction to Roth’s interest in the girl, on the other hand, seems totally overblown. And when the story heads along the all-too-familar trope of a tough white man becoming the saviour of a younger female, there’s an overpowering sense of ‘seen it all before’. Brief flashbacks to Roth’s earlier life (as a much more hirsute hired killer) kindle even more questions. Where did that encyclopaedic knowledge of horticulture come from in the first place? From the White Supremacists’ Handbook? And why is Maya so ready to forgive him for his previous excesses?

Some earnest twaddle about ‘new shoots’ and ‘the seeds of love growing like the seeds of hate’ fail to explain any of this and, by the time we arrive at the (again faintly unbelievable) conclusion, I’m starting to feel relieved that this is a free Picturehouse screening and that I haven’t actually had to pay for a ticket to see this movie.

Schrader has quite a history in cinema and it would be unfair to dismiss him on the strength of one film, but he can (and has) made much better ones than this.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

First Reformed


Paul Schrader is most famous for writing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorscese’s devastating study of a lonely outsider driven to an act of extreme violence – but as a director, he has never really quite hit the mark. There was his fitful remake of Cat People in 1982; his study of the Japanese poet Mishima in 1985; and, more recently, his self-produced film, The Canyons, which attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive the flagging career of Lindsay Lohan. First Reformed arrives in the UK garlanded with praise by the American critics and it certainly represents Schrader’s most assured work as a director, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story it most resembles is Taxi Driver. It’s as though he can’t quite shrug off the influence of his finest achievement, even after all these years.

Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Toller, resident priest of the titular church, an ancient clapboard affair that these days is more a haunt for tourists and souvenir-collectors than an actual congregation. Toller has experienced some misery in his recent past – his son, a soldier, died on active service in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage has subsequently failed because of that loss. It’s clear he’s been given this post mostly out of sympathy and he’s doing his level best to handle the role, but he’s increasingly troubled by the fact that his church is just a small part of a much bigger concern called Abundant Life, whose major benefactor is one Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local businessman who has his fingers in some very dodgy – and environmentally damaging – enterprises. To add to his problems, Reverend Toller is suffering from some kind of intestinal cancer and is existing mostly on a diet of whisky and Pepto Bismol.

Then he’s approached by young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, taking a break from her usual more lightweight roles). She is pregnant but deeply concerned about her partner, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, who is clearly having doubts about bringing a child into such a troubled world. Toller agrees to talk to the young man and finds himself increasingly agreeing with Michael’s point of view. As events develop, he is also irresistibly drawn to Mary herself. And, as he struggles to deal with that realisation, he begins to contemplate an act of unspeakable violence…

This is an extremely dour and sombre film, shot in desaturated colour and projected in an almost square 1:37:1 ratio. The interiors of Toller’s house are distressingly bare and there’s a strange, almost subliminal score, courtesy of Brian Williams, that seems to amp up the sense of alienation we share with him. Hawke is excellent in the title role and the central premise of the aspirations of the church having to bow down in the face of big business are deftly explored. It’s by no means a perfect film – and I can’t help feeling that some of the praise that’s been lavished upon it may have been somewhat exaggerated – but it’s compelling enough to see you through to its odd and profoundly unsettling conclusion. Is it possible for a priest to maintain his faith in such a corrupt and devastated world? Does religion even have a place in it? Schrader’s film is brave enough to ask the questions, even if it can’t quite supply the answers.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney