Tag Archives: Paul Schrader

In Bloom

Master Gardener

by Hope Madden

A damaged man imposes order on his life, eventually growing confident enough in this structure to try to save someone else because he cannot save himself.

That’s right. This is a Paul Schrader movie. Like most of Schrader’s best features (First Reformed, The Card Counter, all the way back to his script for Taxi Driver) Master Gardener delivers a variation on that same riff. Lucky his characters are so compelling they keep us watching.

In this case, that character – the titular gardener – is Narvel (Joel Edgerton). Narvel tells us, via his journal: Gardening is a belief in the future, that change will come in its due time.

Is Schrader growing more optimistic? Or will we grow to hope for Narvel only to witness the worst possible outcome (a la Card Counter)? Longtime fans may get a little nervous before the general moviegoer, but either way, Schrader sets a hook early.

The other element that jumps out early is the look of this film. Schrader’s gift for visual composition has never seen so exceptional a vehicle. Fitting, given the beauty of a garden. The lovely orderliness of Narvel’s garden is set against the riotous disarray that arrives in the shape of Mya (Quintessa Swindell): sloppy clothes, hair everywhere, no plans, no future. Maya doesn’t crave orderliness. Mya just is.

What Mya is not is like her Great Aunt Norma (Sigourney Weaver, letter perfect as the wealthy matriarch of the estate). Norma has arranged for Mya to apprentice on the property. She’d like Narvel, or “Sweet Pea” as she calls him, to look after the girl.

The arrival of this outsider sets wheels in motion. Narvel’s once orderly world now falls victim to his own past, drug dealers, the Feds. Edgerton’s a solid choice for the role, stoic but roiling with regret and quietly desperate for redemption. Swindell’s free spirit, tempered with the justifiable righteousness of youth, offers an excellent counterweight and Weaver outshines them all, stealing every inch of scene she’s in.

But they don’t have enough to do. Redemption feels unearned. Drug addiction is treated as too easily overcome. Most troubling is the way racism is skirted throughout the film.

“Gardening is the manipulation of the natural world, the creation of order out of disorder,” Narvel tells us. Filmmaking can provide much the same exercise. But forgiveness comes too easy for this damaged antihero, and Master Gardener feels too much like Schrader light.


The Card Counter

by Hope Madden

The damaged man seeking redemption — it may be the most cinematic concept, or certainly among the most frequently conjured by filmmakers. When Paul Schrader is on his game, no one tells this story better.

Schrader’s game in The Card Counter is poker, mainly. But if he tells the redemption story differently than others, you should see what he does with a gambling picture.

Oscar Isaac and his enviable hair play William Tell, gambler. Where this film differs from others treading this territory is that, rather than being a man of a somewhat self-destructive bent drawn to the adrenaline, anxiety and thrill of the lifestyle, William is comforted by its mundane routine. When you play the way William plays, gambling is tidy. It is clean. It is predictable.

William learned to count cards — and to appreciate routine — in prison.

His routine is shaken up, as routines must be, by two people. La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) wants to find William a financial backer, put him on a circuit, see him win big. Cirk “with a C” (Tye Sheridan) wants more from him.

The precision and power in Schrader’s writing come as no surprise, but as a director, he wields images with more unique impact here. There are three different worlds in The Card Counter: prison, casinos, haunted past. Each has its own color scheme, style and mood. The haunted past takes on a nightmarish look via fisheye lens, creating a landscape that’s part first-person shooter, part hell.

Schrader’s on point with visual storytelling throughout, even though he relies on voiceover narration from the opening shot. Voiceover narration is rarely done well. It’s often, perhaps usually, a narrative cheat, a lazy device used to tell us something a stronger writer could convey visually. Not when Schrader does it. We learned that in 1976 when he wrote Taxi Driver, and he proves it again here.

It helps that Isaac is a profound talent and essentially flawless in this role. He is the essential Schrader protagonist, a man desperate for relief from an inner torment through repression, redemption or obliteration.

It’s at least the 4th performance of Isaac’s career worthy of Oscar’s attention, which means the Academy will probably deny that recognition again. But you shouldn’t. You should go see The Card Counter.

Radicalization and Reformation

First Reformed

by Rachel Willis

Reminiscent of both Andrei Tarkovsky and Robert Bresson, writer/director Paul Schrader delivers a nearly flawless meditation on faith and despair with First Reformed.

Schrader’s film centers around Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke), overseer of the small church, First Reformed. Reverend Toller lives a simple life. He delivers a Sunday sermon to a very small congregation, gives tours of the 250-year-old church, and occasionally ministers to a youth group. It’s a simple, but seemingly pleasant existence.

His life changes drastically when he’s approached by a young, pregnant woman named Mary (Amanda Seyfried). Mary seeks counsel for her despondent husband, Michael, and Toller agrees to meet with him. It’s a decision that will open the door to the question: Will God forgive us?

Much of the film’s success rests on Hawke. In what is possibly his best performance, he perfectly portrays the inner turmoil and anguish that seizes Reverend Toller. It’s a slow slide from a pleasant façade to destructive rage, and Hawke perfectly captures every emotion, every nuance of Toller’s internal crisis and its external manifestations.

The majority of the supporting cast is able to meet Hawke’s intensity with equal verve. Seyfried’s Mary is the dynamic foil to Toller, and she mostly manages to stay on Hawke’s level. At times, however, she seems out of place, unable to convey the depths of Mary’s feelings.

Schrader’s commentary on the state of the world is bleak, and there’s not much hope to be found in First Reformed. However, it can be seen in simple moments Toller spends with Mary. It provides a few moments of balance, and light, as Toller questions the right way forward.

As the tension builds, the understated score plays a phenomenal role in pulling the audience into Toller’s world. As he contemplates his future, there is a sense of dread that stays just beneath the surface, waiting to be released. There are many moments in which the stress is palpable.

Schrader’s film is a masterful character study that asks thoughtful questions about how our choices will be viewed in the eyes of God.