Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Master (***1/2)

Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


There was a moment in between 2002's Punch-Drunk Love and 2007's There Will Be Blood in which the career of Paul Thomas Anderson shifted in its view. It seemed like an incredibly long five years between those two movies, much longer than the five years that separates There Will Be Blood and his new film, The Master. Before There Will Be Blood, Anderson was a niche filmmaker, specializing in tantalizing, offbeat independent films. Films which very scope challenged the limited resources he had overcame them. But with the release of There Will Be Blood, there was an entirely different scope. It was big. It was important. There was no more niche markets, he was a filmmaker that had to be watched. The movie starred Daniel Day-Lewis, for God's sake. And so, with this transition, P.T. Anderson has become an "event filmmaker", and his latest event is The Master.

I open with that little prologue because I think that it's important to talk about how the anticipation for The Master is almost as important in watching it as the film itself is. "Event films" get the benefit of the doubt when things seem unclear. The very act of seeing the film places you in a position of feeling like you're doing something important. There Will Be Blood may have been Paul Thomas Anderson's breakthrough into important filmmaker status, and it's imperative to see how he follows that up. Well, at least it's imperative for the cinematic mind. But The Master isn't as clear-cut as There Will Be Blood. It's slippery and unclear about its motives most of the time. Anderson clearly took all the chips he won with Blood and doubled-down with his latest film.

The very loose plot centers on Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix; in his first film since his meltdown performance art piece, I'm Still Here), a Navy veteran of World War II who returns to the States with pretty extreme psycho-sexual and social issues. Whether or not Freddie had these issues before he became a Naval officer is one of the many mysteries the film presents. Freddie does not really get along with others; he has a horrible temper, violent tendencies and an almost sociopathic sexual imagination. He's a drunk who makes a hobby out of making drinks from non-beverage items like paint thinner. Even he admits that the stuff he makes can kill you if you don't know how to drink it right. His return to the States is rough and has many stops that usually end with him fighting his way out of a job or running away.

When he trespasses upon a ship which seems to be holding some kind of party, he meets the ship's captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). An eloquent and charming man, Lancaster invites Freddie for a drink and a private conversation. Later on, he invites Freddie to join in on his daughter's wedding which is happening on the boat at that time. Freddie meets Lancaster's pregnant wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who almost instantly recognizes how much Lancaster is fascinated with this drunk, volatile stranger. It isn't until the ship lands in New York that Freddie begins to realize who Lancaster Dodd is. In his own words, Lancaster is "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man... a hopelessly inquisitive man." Freddie quickly learns that he goes by another title, The Master.

Lancaster, it turns out, is the leader of a spiritual group named The Cause. The entire following is based around a book which he wrote, which explains that all people live in a rotating universe in which souls have been coming and going in and out of bodies from death to birth since before the creation of the Earth. The Cause helps you get in touch with past and future lives, in the hopes to cure any stresses or illnesses that may plague you, and accepting the truth will help purify your soul. Lancaster accepts Freddie into his group, but quickly learns that Freddie's erratic behavior doesn't necessarily make him the perfect candidate, and many, including Peggy and Lancaster's newlywed daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers) are nervous about Freddie's presence. But Lancaster sees in Freddie an optimum challenge for The Cause. And beyond that, he's sees the scared child behind Freddie's ferocious eyes.

Many who've seen The Master have and will liken The Cause to Scientology. In a terrific scene, Lancaster asks Freddie a series of questions ranging from benign to incredibly personal. He asks these questions over and over again, pressing Freddie to unearth painful traumas from his past. It's a task that The Cause calls 'Processing', which is not unlike Scientology's 'Auditing'. In fact, the Church of Scientology has already condemned The Master for any possible criticisms it may have of the unorthodox religion (though, I doubt they've even seen it). But if The Master is meant to be some form of satire or blast of Scientology, it's bite is not very hard. In the end, Anderson explains that The Master has about as much to with Scientology as There Will Be Blood had to do with Upton Sinclair's novel, 'Oil!' (of which the screenplay was lightly based).

So, then, if it is not a thinly-veiled attack on Scientology, what exactly is The Master about? I don't doubt that most of the people leaving the theater will ask themselves this, many of them frustrated by just how illusive the movie is at times. I, myself, found it frustrating at just how esoteric Anderson modeled the film to be. Too often I was trying to figure out why things were happening as opposed to just watching them happen. Perhaps, that's the point. Perhaps, Anderson finally has stepped away from his personal, independent roots and fallen into the "Kubrick-zone", where he can literally make any movie that he wants without caring how much viewers will actually understand. And perhaps understanding doesn't matter? Perhaps it's just the powerful, beautiful journey? I think you could sit down for hours and dissect the possibility of what The Master means, and maybe that's all Anderson wanted to do - create a conversation.

Well, I'll just say this: I'd rather P.T. Anderson tell a story, not start a conversation. And it seems, that for the first time ever, Anderson the director, trumped Anderson the screenwriter. Cinematically, The Master is as close to perfect as you can get. Working without Robert Elswit for the first time ever, Anderson joined Francis Ford Coppola mainstay Mihai Malaimare Jr. behind the camera to craft one of the most lush, most beautiful film experiences of the year. Again, like Kubrick, the attention to visual detail seems manic and it leads to what is easily one of the most elegantly photographed movies I've ever seen (though, the Oscar-winning Elswit has nothing to be ashamed of in their previous collaborations). Shot entirely on 65mm (the first film to do so since Kenneth Barnaugh's Hamlet in 1996), the film creates a vast, colorful canvas to display all of the flawed personalities Anderson brings to the screen.

And the performances. My God, the performances. Phoenix and Hoffman, working most of the film in tandem, create such an ominous, but alluring chemistry. Their friendship, so bizarre, is what keeps the film chugging through some of its more slothful moments. Phoenix, in his first narrative role since 2008's highly-underrated Two Lovers, seems to be playing off his apparent public breakdown with this unhinged performance that seems manic and borderline. Every year, there is a performance so good, that you actually worry about that mental health of the performer, and that's what we have from Phoenix, here. Not to be outdone, Hoffman plays Dodd much more subtly. Charming and gregarious (much like what I imagine Scientology creator L. Ron Hubbard to be), Hoffman hides a much more sinister mission underneath the surface that only peaks its head when it really needs to.

Amy Adams, consistently good in almost everything that she does, brings a tad more edge than we've seen before here, putting on a Lady MacBeth type role in her seamless defense and worry for her husband. Laura Dern and Jesse Plemons (as Dodd's incredibly skeptical son, Val) also boast memorable supporting performances. Overall, The Master is a film that will be talked about. I imagine that there are many who will hate it, and at least a hundred who will jump at a chance to make this joke: "The Master? More like The Masterpiece to me!" It's a hard movie to wrap your head around after just one viewing, and I do look forward to seeing it again. It certainly wasn't boring, and it is certainly one of the best films that I will see this year. But it's hard not to feel like I've missed something. Again, perhaps that is the point. Paul Thomas Anderson is, in my opinion, the best living American filmmaker working right now. If The Master ends up being one of the worst movies he ever makes, then that's pretty damn good to me.

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