Monday, July 22, 2013

The Master

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.
2012. Rated R, 143 minutes.
Joaquin Phoenix
Ambyr Childers
Jesse Plemons
Rami Malek
Madisen Beaty
Lena Endre
Kevin J. O’Connor
Amy Ferguson
Joshua Close
Patty McCormack

Right away we come to understand that Freddie Quell  (Phoenix) is a tad off. After serving in World War II, reintegrating into normal society has been an issue for him. Our natural inclination to sympathize with veterans is tested because we get the sense he wasn't wrapped too tight even before the war. And he’s overly obsessed with two things: getting drunk and getting laid. He manages the former practically every night; the latter, not at all.

One drunken night, Freddie wanders into the circle of Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman), AKA The Master to his followers. He’s written a book, teaches cryptic lessons and performs strange rituals to enlighten us all. In effect, he’s started his own religion which many would call a cult. From everything I've read, the guy is based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Makes sense. Anyhoo, he takes a shine to Freddie and begins “processing,” or indoctrinating him into “The Cause.” We spend the rest of the movie watching The Master try to tame this particularly wild beast.

Charges of fraud and other improprieties against Dodd happen from time to time. We also wonder how much control over The Master his wife Peggy (Adams) has. These things are interesting, but neither holds our attention like the battle of wills waged by The Master and Freddie. Therefore, our enjoyment of this film is derived almost entirely from the dynamics between the two men. The only other thing that really perks us up is the same battle of wills Freddie is fighting with himself. If he simply can’t control himself, how does Dodd ever hope to?

Facilitating our intrigue, we get a pair of wonderful performances from Hoffman and Phoenix. Hoffman is perfectly charismatic as the leader of a budding way of thought, no matter how out there it may be. In an exemplary manner, he pulls off his character’s ability to instantly adapt his explanations to most lines of questioning and knack for shouting down anyone not persuaded by his answers. The work Phoenix turns in is flat amazing. From the start, he fully embodies this raging man-child who is understanding of little more than pleasure and pain. In any year in which Daniel Day-Lewis hadn't convinced people he was actually Abraham Lincoln, Phoenix may very well have walked off with the Oscar that he was nominated for.

Unfortunately, deciphering what we’re supposed to take from this movie is no easy task. As it rolls along, it seems to be peeling back Dodd’s many fraudulent layers, but it never follows through in any tangible way. Most notably, Dodd’s own son is presented as a non-believer, but nothing is ever done with this once we learn it. The young man just keeps going along with the program while wearing a pissed off look on his face. It might also be an examination of Freddie’s sanity, or lack thereof. Much of the film at least hints at that idea, while two scenes in particular intently focus on it. Well, maybe. The first includes a party where many of the followers are happily playing music, clapping and dancing while the very drunk Dodd sings a tune. It so happens that all the women are standing around naked. It’s shown as if this may only be Freddie’s perspective on things. However, it’s also followed by a rather strange moment between Dodd and Peggy that suggests otherwise. Later, the rather lengthy “window to the wall” scene shows that poor sap Freddie cracking up while made to walk repeatedly from one end of a room to the other. Then again, it’s more likely this is just to showcase Dodd trying to break him as he attempts on numerous occasions. It’s also entirely possible that, as the ending suggests, this is all about Freddie’s quest to get a woman into bed and just how intricately tied to his happiness the success of this mission is. Therefore, when The Master ends we may be hit by a wave of confusion as we wonder what we just watched. In this case, that’s a good thing. We have much to talk about.

Whatever it is, Paul Thomas Anderson directs it in a manner that makes it difficult to look away from. The shots are beautiful and, as stated, Hoffman and Phoenix command the screen. Many of their scenes together are scintillating. The director brings this out with excellent story-telling skills. Some people will take issue with the story he’s telling, or more specifically, they’ll wonder what the story is about.

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