Paul Schrader’s ‘Master Gardener’ follows the story of a man named Narvel Roth, who works as a gardener in the estate of a wealthy woman. He is dedicated to his job and is strict about his routine. Like Schrader’s other protagonists, Narvel is a minimalist, whether about the words he speaks or the place he lives in. He has a chequered past but is trying to move on from it by religiously sticking to horticulture.
Narvel’s carefully constructed world goes off balance when his employee’s grandniece, Maya, becomes his apprentice. It brings out the memories that Narvel had buried deep in his mind, forcing him to confront his past. The startling realistic nature of his character might make you wonder if he is based on a real person. Here’s what you should know about him. SPOILERS AHEAD
Is Narvel Roth Based on a Real Person?
No, Narvel Roth is not based on a real person. He is an original character created by writer-director Paul Schrader. He talked about the origins of the character in an interview with THR, where he revealed that Narvel’s storyline began with his profession. Schrader imagined him as “an anonymous man working in the gardens” who was hiding from something. As he started to explore what the character could be hiding from, the idea of the witness protection program came naturally to him.
At first, Schrader thought Narvel could be a mob hitman but rejected the idea because it had been done several times before. “I thought, let’s ratchet it up a notch and say he’s a Proud Boy, and not only that, he was the Proud Boy who did the dirty work for the other Proud Boys. And then he totally flipped and became the king of the rats. And now he has no life,” the Academy Award-nominated writer said.
Playing Narvel was a challenge for Joel Edgerton because Schrader had instructed him to do nothing. Eventually, Edgerton slipped into Narvel’s mindset and found that it was all about forgiveness from others and oneself. “Part of the proposition of the movie regarding forgiveness, one of the big questions is, can someone with that kind of past be deserving of a free life if they chose to put that past behind, especially if it is wrapped up in acts of violence,” the actor said. With this in mind, we can say that while Narvel is not based on a real person, the director and the actor have done their best to present him as a real person.
Is Narvel a Nazi?
Early in the film, a scene reveals all of Narvel’s tattoos he hides beneath his clothes. He has several swastikas and other things that prove his ties to a white supremacist group. Does this mean Narvel is a fascist and racist? The flashbacks into Narvel’s history reveal that he was part of a white nationalist group. When he tells Maya about it, he reveals that he grew up in a household that nurtured that mentality.
When Narvel grew up, he started to do the dirty work for his group, which included killing people. Eventually, however, Narvel realized the error of his ways. He was sent to kill a black family. Though Narvel shot the man, he couldn’t kill his wife and children, perhaps because he was reminded of his own family. Narvel knew this wouldn’t bode well with his group, and they would force him to do much worse things. So, he decided to flip on them.
Narvel became a witness, leading the entire group to disperse. He was sent into a witness protection program because other white supremacists would want revenge against him. His family was told that he died in an accident so that they could get closure. Narvel, whose original name was Norton Rupplea, had to adopt a new identity. To get him a job and a place to live, he was sent to Norma Haverhill, who helped him find a purpose by turning him towards horticulture. Judging by the fact that Narvel works with people of color and doesn’t seem to harbor any malice towards them, we can say that Narvel has reformed his ways.
For director Paul Schrader, the protagonist’s seemingly impossible redemption arc, and the metaphor of him becoming a gardener worked well with what he wanted the film to be about. Saying that gardening is a rich metaphor for both good and evil, he said: “On one hand, a white supremacist can say, ‘We’re the gardeners; we pull out the weeds.’ On the other hand, a humanist can say, ‘We’re gardeners; we help things grow.’ And both are using the gardening metaphor — one is evil, and one is good.” By having Narvel turn his life around, he paved a path for the character that makes the audience conflicted about him while thinking about whether or not such a character can have that redemption.
Read More: Is Master Gardener Based on a True Story?