Saturday, October 13, 2012

The Master

Grade: 98 (A)

In the five years since its release, There Will Be Blood has gone from one of the most acclaimed films of the year to the closest thing to a consensus pick for the best film of the 2000s (something I argued for at the time). Paul Thomas Anderson has gone from a widely respected writer-director to being the most vital and important American filmmaker of his generation. His new film The Master was released last month to gushing reviews, feverish anticipation, and often puzzled viewers. It’s not hard to see why on any front: The Master tops Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood as Anderson’s most challenging and least immediately inviting film. It’s also one of his richest and most rewarding, a weird and rough-edged masterpiece that only further solidifies his place as the finest filmmaker working today.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) has returned from World War II. Freddie is in lousy shape: sex-obsessed and frequently drunk, he drifts from job to job over the next few years as his erratic behavior gets him into trouble. When one of his batches of moonshine accidentally kills a man, Freddie stows away aboard a ship, where he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Referred to by his followers as “The Master”, Dodd has developed a new movement called The Cause, which uses “processing” as a way to get through past traumas and cleanse the spirit. Freddie becomes Dodd’s closest friend and most dedicated follower, often beating men who criticize The Cause as being a cult. But Freddie’s often violent behavior alienates him and often frightens others, and Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) wonders whether or not he’s a spy sent to bring down the movement, or perhaps just insane.

No conversation about The Master can avoid the three central performances- there are a few other good turns here and there (Laura Dern as a devout follower puzzled by some inconsistencies in teaching, Jesse Plemons as Dodd’s skeptical son), but it’s largely a three-person show. Adams burst onto the acting scene with warm and often bubbly turns in films like Enchanted and Junebug before showing her range as the tough bartender in The Fighter, but her handful of juicy scenes in The Master gives her a chance to show off a previously unseen chilly and controlling side as a woman who serves as a master of sorts to her otherwise unchallenged husband.

Hoffman is likely the single most consistently brilliant actor working today (role call: Boogie Nights, Happiness, Magnolia, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous, Capote, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Doubt, countless others), but The Master gives him the finest and richest role of his career. It has widely been reported that Dodd is based off of L. Ron Hubbard and The Cause off of Scientology, and it’s pretty clear here, but the Dodd-Hubbard comparison isn’t unlike the Kane-Hearst comparison in Citizen Kane or the Walter-Milius comparison in The Big Lebowski- more a jumping-off point than an unauthorized biography. Dodd is both controlling and a controlled man most of the time, each syllable and gesticulation rehearsed like a fine performance meant to draw in the easily dominated. The film’s portrait of a cult is fairly scathing even if the word is only used once, but Dodd is still a sympathetic character, a man searching for something that makes sense in a world that clearly doesn’t, and when his authority is questioned, the well-rehearsed persona he has built for himself comes crashing down in a handful of startling moments.

As for Phoenix: look, there will surely be plenty of great performances this year, but we might as well just give him the Best Actor Oscar right now. Phoenix’s strange personal life/publicity stunt debacle no doubt seeps into the perception of Freddie’s behavior, but it’s never reliant on that mysterious persona to sell the role. This is some of the most fiercely committed and unpredictable acting since the early days of Brando or De Niro or James Dean. His wiry body and cracked face shows a man who’s constantly coming apart at the seams, and one who could just as soon kill the Master as embrace him. Like Dodd, Freddie is a difficult and often unlikable character, but he’s still deeply sympathetic. He’s a man without a place, searching for something that makes sense, and when he finally finds something he’s forced to bring it into question. He’s both a perfect subject for a cult to remake in their image and an impossible conquest, and a man who simultaneously wishes to join and to rebel.

Several paragraphs of hyperbole could be dedicated to Jonny Greenwood’s spectacularly offbeat score or the gorgeous photography by underrated master cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (heretofore best known for his work on Francis Ford Coppola’s recent films) or Jack Fisk’s perfect production design, but it all has to come back to Paul Thomas Anderson, who has perfected the jagged, arrhythmic tones and movements of Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood as well as the dense, ambitious worlds of Magnolia and There Will Be Blood. I could also spend paragraphs pointing out all the homages that made me jump with glee- to John Huston’s Let There Be Light, to Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard, to Kubrick’s The Shining, and so on.

Let’s just leave it at this: Anderson has made another towering masterpiece where every shot is a gorgeous portrait unto itself, and one that certainly plays with grand themes such as religion and the American Dream. But it’s above all else another tale about Anderson’s three most central interests: unconventional father-son relationships, alienation, and loneliness. The connection between Dodd and Freddie is another push-pull relationship between father and son figures who love each other deeply but can’t help but hurt each other and push the other away. Dodd and Freddie are men who will forever be on the outside of societal acceptability, forever forced to defend themselves. And like the cast of Magnolia, they’re both lost and lonely souls, but here there’s no true moment of healing. They’ll wander forever, searching for answers and for a place to belong, never to be fulfilled.

For more about Paul Thomas Anderson's films, go read what I wrote about him for The Airspace here and here.

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