If there’s one thing Paul Schrader knows how to do, it’s to write about tormented men. Travis Bickle (“Taxi Driver”), John LeTour (“Light Sleeper”), and Jake Van Dorn (“Hardcore”) are three examples. Of course, you could also add Jake LaMotta and Jesus Christ to the list. With his latest film the writer-director completes his “Punishment-Meets-Redemption” trilogy that began with 2017’s “First Reformed,” was followed by last year’s “The Card Counter,” and concludes with “Master Gardener.” Joel Edgerton plays the title character but he’s no Chauncey Gardiner, evidenced by the swastikas and “white pride” tattoos on his back. He’s also in a relationship with a biracial woman played by Quintessa Swindell. In today’s socio-economic climate is Schrader striking while the iron is hot, or is he making it hot by striking?

The film opens with a beautiful time-lapse montage of colorful flowers blooming set to the harmonious score by Devonté Hynes from Blood Orange. “The formal garden imposes geometric structures on plants,” writes Narvel Roth (Edgerton) in his journal, reinforced by voice-over narration. The original entry notebook is a common fixture in Schrader’s films.

Alexander Dynan’s cinematography is filled with vibrant shades of color courtesy of the perennials that saturate the background, enhanced by the contrasting cold concrete walls of the building that serves as a flora detention center. Soon they will be planted by the staff at Gracewood Gardens situated on a colonial estate owned by Norma Haverhill (Sigourney Weaver). She’s a powerful and headstrong woman who a century and a half ago would have owned slaves. Weaver’s reserved performance keeps Norma shrouded in mystery. She’s never portrayed as a racist (accepting of her biracial great-niece) but she also has no problem with Narvel’s sordid past as a former Proud Boy, evidenced by her request to see his tattoos before demanding sexual favors.

We get glimpses of Narvel’s past via flashbacks of a bearded and shaggy-haired Edgerton surrounded by a bunch of good ol’ boys in a rural setting. He wasn’t just a member of the white supremacist group; he was their main enforcer. Now the scents of various flowers give Narvel the buzz that he used to get by pulling a gun’s trigger. At some point our horticulturist protagonist became an informant for the Feds, hence his new life via witness protection. The film features a great cameo by Esai Morales as Narvel’s FBI contact, the two often meet at a diner whenever Narvel is feeling antsy about a situation.

Quintessa Swindell (“Black Adam”) plays Maya who comes to Gracewood Gardens at the request of her great-aunt Norma after living a drug-dealing past. The professional nursery begins to resemble a halfway house for those on a path to redemption. Norma informs Narvel, “I would like you to take Maya on as an apprentice” while informing him that she will provide transportation and minimum wage. Narvel is to teach the twenty-something niece how to tend a garden and give her lessons about horticulture.

As Maya begins to settle in her new life, she’s helped along by Narvel who begins to play mediator between her and Noma who distances herself from her great-niece. Schrader, known for pushing buttons, builds tension between the three adults as sex comes into play. Has Narvel really put his past behind him or is he is in some sort of purgatory to amend for his sins?

Another layer to the story is added when Maya discovers her mentor’s past while her drug dealer-ex re-enters her life resulting in physical abuse. When Narvel asks his contact at the Feds to investigate the “piece of —- drug dealer,” nothing is done, and you can guess where the story goes next as Narvel drives around the projects armed with a pair of pruning shears.

“Master Gardener” is not only a continuance of Schrader’s “Punishment-Meets-Redemption” trilogy it reflects a new chapter in the filmmaker’s saga, a bit reserved yet polemic as always and dark as ever. Edgerton aligns with this late stage of the filmmaker’s career; the Australian actor’s brooding characteristic proves menacing even when he’s being congenial. One gets the feeling that it’s only a matter of time before he explodes like a timebomb, even if it doesn’t come to fruition.

Quintessa Swindell while delivering a good performance, is incompatible with Edgerton, that is, they lack chemistry. But can a biracial woman find compatibility with a former white supremacist? Just being together they are defying the odds (which comes with stipulations) but I’m guessing the discordance would eventually prove too much.

At 76, Schrader continues to churn out stimulating work. As a director, “American Gigolo” and “Affliction” get the most attention, although he may be more famous for writing “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull.” He wrote the POW psychological thriller “Rolling Thunder” starring William Devane. The 1977 San Antonio-shot thriller was one of my favorites during my youth, but like much of Schrader’s work (which is often too dark or violent), it underwent script changes. Still, I’d like to see his cut of the film. For now, let’s hope Schrader has more stories to tell.

(3 ½ stars)

Now showing in theatres

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Joe Friar head and shoulders

Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.