Friday, September 21, 2012

The Master


THE MASTER: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams (138 min.)

One thing is certain when seeing a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.  Despite the inspirations in Anderson's mind or the allusions to the brilliant directors before him, when you watch a PTA film it will be like nothing you have ever seen.  The Master is almost indescribable beyond simple details of the characters and plot, however little plot may truly exist or even be relevant in the end.  The density and the challenge of the film is overwhelming at times.  I don't quite know how good The Master is ultimately, but I do know it is interesting and begs to be seen two or three times before anything can be understood.  I have always likened Anderson to Robert Altman, but in The Master I see something altogether different.  I see Kubrick.

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie Quell, a severely damaged human being who may or may not have been mentally destroyed by World War II.  In early scenes we see Freddie cracking aboard a Naval ship alone and unstable.  There is hinting at such a thing, but nothing concrete.  Nevertheless, Freddie is a lost soul who obsessively manufactures cocktails of jet fuel, floor cleaner, film chemicals, anything he can find.  Freddie is also severely sexually corrupt.  As he bounces from job to job until an outburst of violence or another mishap sends him fleeing, he stumbles upon a ship leaving port in San Francisco one night.  The ship is led by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a soothing intellectual who floats on his words, proud of each one.  Dodd has created a new "religion," called simply The Cause, and his disciples fill the boat. 

Dodd's family is on board.  His daughter is married on the boat, and his son is skeptical of The Cause.  His wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), may be the most fascinating of the three given her juxtaposition to the acting.  There are blatant hints to Lady Macbeth in the way Peggy manipulates things behind the scenes.  She sees Freddie as a danger, but a danger to what?  Freddie is weak and angry and lost, and Dodd is simply trying to help him, or so he says.  He works Freddie over, piercing his thoughts and trying to release him into this new belief.  It takes some time, but soon Freddie is manipulated to a point where he defends Dodd and The Cause blindly, and with violence.  A man shows up at one of the meetings and aggressively questions the validity of Dodd's theories and Freddie pays him a visit later that night.

We all know The Master is based on - but not really - the beginnings of Scientology and that the Hoffman character represents Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard.  That is all well and good to me, I find no need to discuss the controversy or objections or whatever.  It is clear Anderson is telling his own story.  Dodd gives Freddie what is called "processing," a rapid and intense series of questioning that has to mirror the infamous "auditing" program in Scientology.  We are given a loose bullet-point description of The beliefs in The Cause, but we do get a firm feel of the grass roots movement of a new religion.  But what is real in the film and what is a scam by Hoffman and Adams' as Lancaster and Peggy?

The way The Master opens up into a handful of different interpretations is the blessing and the curse.  It remains opaque maybe to a fault, even though I regret saying something like that.  Because, as I mentioned earlier, Kubrick is in Anderson's work here, and Stanley Kubrick's films took years to digest.  There is a separation between the viewers and these characters, and Anderson still manages to draw them completely.  Simple looks, throwaway lines, key shots, almost everything means something in the structure of the film.  And there is no beginning and end; the film starts, and it ends, and what you are presented with is a film dominated by performances.

I already mentioned Adams and the way she paints the background with intrigue.  Hoffman has all the charm and panache of the finest snake oil salesman, but there is darkness and rage in his character.  It shines through in a handful of brief, powerful, angry outbursts.  But this is all about the hypnotic and stunning performance from Joaquin Phoenix.  Thin, lumbering, his odd shoulders hunched even further in front of him, Phoenix portrays Freddie as a shriveling man in a cloud of poison.  He speaks through clenched teeth and carries darkness in his eyes.  As he falls under the spell of Dodd, rather than improve Freddie simply transplants his sickness into other areas.  By the end of the film, Freddie is dangerously thin and sickly, a shell of a human being.  All of these idiosyncrasies of the Pheonix performance aren't distracting because he knows how to manage them within the confines of the film.  It is an Oscar-winning performance.

The Master is an experience, and it is an interesting film, but I am reluctant to give it some sort of arbitrary letter grade right now.  Anderson has pulled off another film that is beautiful and succinct with the work of composer and Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood.  These two have started something together that may work for a long time.  My mind is all over the map trying to process the deeper aspects of the film, but thus far what is written here are things I know.