Master Gardener: a five-star masterclass from director Paul Schrader

Schrader’s new film explores a provocative mix of racial tensions, class struggle and age-gap relationships

Master Gardener
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Director: Paul Schrader
Cert: None
Genre: Drama
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Quintessa Swindell, Esai Morales
Running Time: 2 hrs mins

Paul Schrader is on the hottest streak of his career since his early collaborations with Martin Scorsese yielded Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. At the 2021 Venice Film Festival Schrader called The Card Counter one of his “man at a table” pictures. Master Gardener, his next film in that subgenre, premiered in Venice last year. Following on from First Reformed, Card Counter and Master Gardener form a loose and welcome trilogy. Each film features a man with a troubled past, a woman who offers redemption, and a grandstanding violent act.

Master Gardener stars Joel Edgerton as Narvel Roth, a horticulturist working in an ornate garden for landowner and sometime lover Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). Norma entrusts her grandniece Maya (Quintessa Swindell) to Narvel as an apprentice, noting that the girl is of “mixed blood”. That remark will make sense as Narvel’s racist past is slowly revealed in flashbacks, journal entries and many Proud Boy tattoos.

Want a masterclass in screenwriting? Watch how Schrader evolves the relationship between Narvel and Maya into romance. Watch, too, as Narvel’s relationship with Norma subsequently deteriorates.

The provocative mix of racial tensions, class struggle and not one but two very different age-gap relationships is not for the faint of heart. The trajectory harks back to the writer-director’s spiritual musings in Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, his influential 1972 book. The playfully explored subject matter, one wild floral-themed fantasia, and a screwy interpretation of salvation ensure that the film pushes ambiguous heroism even further than Travis Bickle – another Schrader creation defined by his job – imagined.


The relationship – and banter – between Swindell’s Maya and Weaver’s Norma are, alone, worth the admission price. Weaver’s wardrobe seals the deal.

The scale of ideas is big. American social and racial frictions are entertainingly engaged as we work our way towards a shoot-em-up denouement.

At 76, more than 20 films into his storied career, Paul Schrader can still deliver a sucker punch.

Tara Brady

Tara Brady

Tara Brady, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a writer and film critic