Writer and director Paul Schrader is notorious for fleshing out characters, especially male ones, that have something extremely intense burning inside them. Some theorists put his films in special categories, and his new film Master Gardener is said to be the third of his Man in a Room trilogy. The characters in his films often have a dark past, and their present is filled with loneliness, a feeling that is masked by a stoic demeanor. In Master Gardener, Schrader has yet again created an atmospheric, layered drama that has at its center the same masculine figure that he is so well known for. A seemingly principled man with a past that haunts him and the chance of redemption coming in the form of a feminine spirit. Schrader, who is the writer of films such as the explosive urban character study Taxi Driver, American Gigolo and Mishima, among others, has tried to raise a pertinent political issue that melds into the drama with such melancholy that it begins to explore itself through his characters in the infamous Schrader fashion.
Narvel Roth works at Gracewood Gardens under Norma Haverhill. He leads a team of dedicated workers during the day and journals extensively during the night. His life could seem like drudgery with only gardening as the primary subject, but he revels in all the details around it. A little chink in this regimented existence often comes when Norma calls him up to his room after sharing a soothing dinner. One day, she tells him about her grandniece Maya, who had lost her mother recently. Now orphaned, she would be coming to join him as an apprentice. Narvel’s carefully curated existence is disturbed by Maya’s arrival, and soon it is realized that Narvel isn’t a simple gardener and that he has an evil past that will come back to haunt him.
With slicked back hair, impeccable clothing style, a gait, and a speaking tone so insistent upon itself, Narvel Roth can pass for a 1930s gangster film superstar, but he is presented as a simple gardener. In complete Schrader style, he writes a journal in his dark room, lit only by a table lamp, ruminating on the metaphor of a garden as the whole world. You can be certain that when a character starts to connect small subjects to lofty ideals, he has lost his sense of proportion or is desperately trying to retain it. Gardening for Narvel is a “belief in the future,” for he can plan how to tweak the plants and shrubs and alter their shape using myriad techniques. Can one say that about the future, though? Narvel probably can’t, which is why he is devoted to cultivating and maintaining a perfect garden for the wealthy owner, Norma Haverhill.
With Schrader’s characters, one can be sure of the fact that they have a dark past, and Narvel fits right in that category. The reason behind his full-sleeve, covered-up clothing style is revealed when Narvel is shown bare-bodied, showing all sorts of nasty tattoos over his body. He was certainly a neo-Nazi in the past, a champion for “white pride,” but something terrible happened to make him live at Haverhill Estate, working diligently under the new identity of a gardener, cut-off from the outside world. His relationship with Haverhill is complex, to say the least. It can only be said that it’s a mix of both business and pleasure, although it has to be added that the pleasure is lopsidedly divided, falling heavily in favor of Norma Haverhill. Maya comes into this dynamic and things begin to unfold. Narvel’s complex past collides with his present.
An old, bearded man often showed up in his dreams making him uneasy. The old man was none other than his father who could be heard saying the phrase “we pick out the weeds,” hinting at their attitude towards the African American community. Narvel was in such a grip of the racist ideology that when his father commanded him to kill a Reverend of Color, he didn’t hesitate, but he let the reverend’s wife and daughter go, essentially leaving witnesses. The “seed of hate” wasn’t planted as deep as one thought, otherwise he would have wiped away the reverend’s entire family. Maya represented both his guilt and also his chance to breathe freely again. There was a little shred of hope left for redemption.
The road to redemption, however, is never straightforward. Narvel grows fond of Maya but keeps it hidden, never letting it overcome his stoic demeanor and making him break his character, one that he had grown so adept at playing. Also, he couldn’t afford letting her see those tattoos, a proof of his evil past. So, one day, when Maya gets a little too close to him, he pushes her away lest she see those tattoos. Although he cannot engage with her this way, he has own ways of showing affection. When Maya gets in trouble with her boyfriend, he goes out of his way to contact the officer in charge of his case and asks him a favor to sort out this ‘boyfriend-situation.’ This is also where we find out that ‘Narvel Roth’ is just an alias, and his real name is Norton Rupplea. He had become a witness for the state against the neo-Nazi skinheads and had been a ‘good boy’ for the authorities, playing the part of Narvel assiduously.
Another instance of his feelings for Maya getting revealed is when Norma attacks her for trying to ‘steal’ Narvel away. He stands up for Maya but has absolutely no leverage against Norma. They both are thrown out of the estate and a completely new chapter starts in Narvel’s journey. Away from Norma’s gaze, he first rehabilitates Maya, and starts living a motel-to-motel existence. The drug issue subsides and the intimacy between them starts to blossom. Narvel, vulnerable as ever, promises her to get his tattoos removed, which weighed so heavy on his heart. This vulnerability and the openness fills him with a strength he lacked. He feels the rapture of being alive and it is in this rapture that he feels ready to finally stand up to Norma. He helps restore her garden, which had been vandalized by the drug dealers and then proceeds to tell her up front that he would be living with Maya in his cabin on the estate as a married couple. Someday, hopefully, he would reunite with his estranged daughter, whom he had to leave behind when he switched his life from Norton Rupplea to Narvel Roth. In the present however, he dances with Maya, basking in the bliss of this new-found life.
Norma’s grandniece Maya can be described as a breath of fresh air in the regimented garden run by Narvel. Now orphaned, she too is in trouble. Called in by Norma, she is made to learn the art of gardening under Narvel’s tutelage. Having curly hair and a disarming smile, Maya’s bi-racial skin color, however, becomes her central physical characteristic, given the context of the film. Her name is as simple as it can get, and that is again a metaphor for how non-complex she is as compared to Narvel or Norma. She even brings up Narvel’s name and pokes fun at it for being so unusual. How could she suspect that it wasn’t his real name?
It would be a disservice to Maya to see her issues as unimportant. There is the resentment at one end that she holds against Norma, which may have developed over time due to Norma’s utter disregard, continual neglect, and condescending attitude towards her. On the other end is her lifestyle, which had made her a drug addict and even with a decent level of self-awareness, she couldn’t admit that fact to herself. One fine day, she shows up at the Haverhill estate, bruised after getting hit by her boyfriend, which becomes the catalyst for Narvel’s head-on confrontation with his own racist past and Norma’s mutating relationship with him.
Maya fits the long list of female characters in Schrader’s filmography that get entangled in an anti-hero’s chance at being a savior so he can feel redeemed by it. She is the complete antithesis of Narvel. Narvel is burdened with hate while she is a free spirit. Narvel was once part of a family that burdened itself with the job of pulling out the “weeds.” Well Maya too says that her job is to pull out the weeds when she joins Narvel as an apprentice. The two “weeds” are completely opposite of each other. Narvel’s whole existence as Norton was to weed out love and fraternity out of the community, while Maya only knows to weed out hate which she successfully manages to do with Narvel and helps him to live and laugh freely again. When she does get the chance to shoot his abusive boyfriend, she chooses to take the road devoid of violence and walks away, showing her strength of character. She could live a happy life with Narvel provided his violence did not return back which could upstage the fairytale ending.
The third vertex in the story is that of Norma Haverhill. A touch less insane than another Norma, Norma Desmond, the fading movie star from the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard, her relationship with Narvel does remind me of the Billy Wilder classic. Aroused by Narvel’s tattoos, she often calls him “Sweet Pea,” but this artificial sweetness can take a sudden sharp twist if he dares to walk his own path. She is jealous of her own grandniece and views her as the result of an “obscene” union. Her racist attitude is masked behind her aristocratic appearance, but her hateful and splenetic inner core oozes out every time something happens that is not in line with her desires. She calls in Maya, apparently to help her out, but if she really wanted to help her, she wouldn’t behave in a disdainful manner, expecting only graceful remarks in return from her. Trying to keep Narvel in her grip by promising him the garden as an inheritance, she lives as if she is doing the world a favor, but her illusions are to be shattered. She loses Narvel to Maya in the end (as if she was ever in competition) and her father’s trophy Luger, a famous German pistol used extensively by the Nazis during World War 2, is rendered ineffective by Narvel symbolizing that her power over him, due to their shared racist ideology, had finally dissolved.
Paul Schrader’s characters always pinch at the heart. His films leave an indelible mark on the viewer, and with Master Gardener, he has added yet another complex film to his filmography. Like all the rest of his works, this film is also recommended to be viewed twice to get the full gist of what Paul is after. He spins a nuanced yarn, playing push and pull with the intimate elements between the characters, especially with those of Narvel and Maya. There are several other minor characters in the story that are all equally important to understanding the depth of the political comment Schrader makes in the film. Using gardening as a metaphor this time, implying that it takes the presence of all kinds of “flowers” to cultivate a harmonious garden, Schrader shows his astute eye for detail and emerges with a moody political piece in the garb of character studies, bringing his trilogy of Man in a Room to a conclusion.