Master Gardener

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades


My friend Eric Kroll used to hang out with filmmaker Paul Schrader, particularly when he was making “Hardcore.” Known as “the king of the fetish photographers,” Eric was a good choice to do the still photography for a film about the pornography industry.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting Paul Schrader is sleazy. I’m trying to make the point that he has a bleak, gritty vision. And that his films often sprout from dark roots.

Raised as a strict Calvinist, Schrader frequently tells stories about “alienated men struggling through existential crises.” This is a premise known as “God’s lonely man.”

Having dissociated themselves from life, these characters are just waiting for something else to happen. They come fully formed as an outgrowth of the European existential hero from the works of Dostoyevsky, Camus, and Sartre.

“You can’t really outrun your original programming,” says the 76-year-old Paul Schrader.

Schrader wrote the screenplays for such disturbing films as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “American Gigolo,” “Light Sleeper,” and “Affliction.” In all, he has directed 24 films, most of them considered neo-noir crime dramas.

Now, Schrader gives us a new film in this genre, “Master Gardener.” It’s the last entry in what he calls an “accidental trilogy,” with the first two being the semi-autobiographical “First Reformed” and “Card Counter.”

Written and directed by Schrader, “Master Gardener” tells of a horticulturist (Joel Edgerton) working at Gracewood Gardens, a historic estate owned by wealthy lady (Sigourney Weaver). She asks him to take on her “half-blood” great-niece (Quintessa Swindell) as his apprentice. This throws our gardener’s life into turmoil, because (spoiler alert) he’s actually a white supremacist living in a witness protection program. Falling in love with a biracial girl half his age was not in his plans.

Schrader puckishly says, “Maybe I can have that scene now, where he is involved with a woman old enough to be his mother and another woman young enough to be his daughter. And, the stress points that puts on the triangle are quite fascinating.”

He adds, “The outrageousness of having a Proud Boy find love was just too outrageous to pass up.” The character was originally conceived as a former hitman for the mob. “However, this theme of American racism kept growing.”

As a filmmaker Schrader likes to deal with uncomfortable truths. And he particularly enjoys pushing people’s hot buttons.

“I said to the producer, ‘You know, if we really wanna get them not thinking about the May-December romance and not thinking about the white nationalist, let’s cast Kevin Spacey … Their heads will be spinning so long they won’t stop.’”

But he went with Edgerton instead.

Schrader’s decision to explore race through the lens of his hard-edged storytelling “will certainly (and probably rightfully) prickle some.”

My friend Eric says that’s what Schrader likes to do. “Aren’t preacher’s sons always the bad boys?” he reminded me.

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