‘Master Gardener’ takes the ‘Man in a Room’ genre to new heights
Paul Schrader’s thriller is screening at the Houses now – here, Hanna Flint explains why it’s a must-see
Saturday 20 May 2023. By Hanna Flint
The very first shot in Master Gardener is of Joel Edgerton’s Narvel Roth sitting in the corner of his small cabin, at a sparse desk, writing in his journal under the light of a simple desk lamp. In a low, drawling voiceover, we hear the notes about botany that Roth is committing to the page in meticulous detail while the camera circles him. It’s a scene that raises a smile, because it’s one we’ve long become accustomed to when settling into a Paul Schrader joint. For this is not just an easy introduction to our eponymous man in a room – it’s a signature.
Since writing the era-defining screenplay for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the ‘Man in a Room’ has become ubiquitous with the American film critic-turned-filmmaker. There’s certainly echoes of Travis Bickle in Edgerton’s horticulturalist. Roth is a lonely insomniac with a traumatic past of violence who also becomes protective of a younger female character in danger (Maya, played by Black Adam’s Quintessa Swindell). He also likes to observe himself in a mirror and, just with Travis, you find yourself empathising with this alienated man, despite his ghastly actions. I’m not going to spoil the horrific thing we discover about Roth, but you might, like me, guess exactly the type of person he was the minute you see Edgerton’s short on the sides and long on the top hairdo. Yet, this gardener is a product of today, not 46 years ago. He’s a prime example of Schrader’s commitment to the evolution of his antihero protagonists ever since his raging, paranoid OG first hit the screen.
‘The character has gotten older as I’ve gotten older,’ Schrader once said of his men in a room in 1992. ‘When he was in his twenties he was angry. When he was in his thirties he was narcissistic. And now he’s 40 and he’s anxious. I think that the times have changed similarly.’
Richard Gere’s Julian Kay in American Gigolo is the narcissist the filmmaker is describing. Where Taxi Driver grapples with the gritty post-Vietnam War hangover in American society, Gigolo reflects the burgeoning era of excess and materialism of the 1980s. Kay has to look and dress the part of being a high-class escort, and Schrader sharpens that turn away from Taxi Driver by serving up a lonely protagonist whose life is steeped in sex while Travis’s life is absent of it. But Kay’s acts of service are for the people paying him. He gives and doesn’t receive, which is a power dynamic Schrader revisits in Master Gardener through Roth’s wealthy, old world boss and patron Norma Haverhill, played with crisp theatricality by Sigourney Weaver.
In 1992, Willem Dafoe became the next man in the room to offer a service. In Light Sleeper’s case, his John LeTour is a recovering addict delivering drugs on behalf of Susan Sarandon’s wealthy supplier. He’s entered his mid-life crisis phase, he can’t sleep, and as the late Roger Ebert summarised in his review, ‘the party has been over for a long time, and these old druggies, now approaching middle age, have been left behind.’ LeTour is too old for this shit, but how does one start anew and redeem themselves when this past still has a stranglehold? Light Sleeper exhibits a weary existentialism that has grown more prominent in Schrader’s man in a room series, especially since 2018’s First Reformed.
A well-known Robert Bresson fan, the filmmaker took inspiration from Diary Of A Country Priest while writing the melancholic film about a grieving pastor going through a crisis of faith. He also drew from his own upbringing in the Calvinist church, which Ethan Hawke exemplifies as Ernst Toller, a depressive character reawakened by a challenge to his belief system. We don’t see the moment of challenge to Roth’s hateful belief system in Master Gardener, but a perspective shift is evident by the redemptive journey Schrader wants to take viewers on. His last movie, The Card Counter, similarly uses this structure with flashbacks of harrowing violence to show you just who Oscar Isaac’s dishonourably discharged soldier and gambler Will Tell used to be.
Master Gardener now completes this specific man in a room trilogy, where the guilt of these lost souls motivates their need to atone for their sins. ‘These men cannot forgive themselves, and then the redemption comes,’ said Schrader last year. At 76 years old, the filmmaker shows no signs of slowing the production of men in rooms ready to test your empathy levels. Whether he convinces you they deserve redemption, however, will never be his concern.
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