Friday, September 28, 2012

Love: The Master

 When The Master ended, we didn't leave the theater.  It's not as though the credits were stylishly managed or as if we were waiting for some sort of bonus footage, but we just sat, and stayed, and at first there was no communication at all.  It just didn't seem like the right time to speak.  We stayed there til the lights came up, and when they did we stumbled into the lobby like we'd emerged from Plato's cave and embarked in a standing discussion for what was probably a very long time.  No one had any definite answers last week, and I'm afraid I still don't have them now.  The Master is a confounding, remarkable cinematic achievement, and though I'm not sure what it all adds up to,  I look forward to watching it many, many more times.
I'd like to imagine that the strange, foggy bewilderment is deliberate.  Perhaps this is excuse making on behalf of a filmmaker I'm quite fond of and a movie I'd been eagerly anticipating, but The Master reads as so formally perfect that it's hard to imagine Paul Thomas Anderson making it strictly in service of a cinematographic ideal.  Anderson's vision is very much on display in each and every shot of The Master, and the compositions are crisp, spacious landscapes built to house the larger than life performances of its leads.  We travel by land and by sea, with aerial and tracking shots that are very nearly worrisome, as if our protagonist's erratic behavior is something we should fret about in real time.  Everything is beautiful in the most mundane way, alive with a strange post-war tension rooted in some strange, moth-eaten distaste for the washed-out banalities of modern existence.  And, um, yeah, if that sounds pretentious, you probably shouldn't see the movie.      
 The photography, of course, is a footnote beneath the hypnotic power of the terrifying Joaquin Phoenix.  A summation of the plot has almost no value, but in abstract The Master is about Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a mentally shattered WWII veteran who returns to a society unwilling to give a trauma-addled loose cannon a steady job.  On an inebriated evening of note, Freddie stows away on the boat housing the magnetic renaissance man Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his 'family' of followers in a vaguely defined, Scientology-esque new 'religion' called "The Cause."  Dodd and Quell connect, somehow, someway.  Freddie is dangerous, crude, violent, and generally lacking in both intelligence and self-control. He is an animal where  Dodd is every bit a man: well-spoken, sharply composed, a supposedly brilliant multi-talent who frequently talks his way out of small troubles.  Dodd's steely, tricky wife Peggy (Amy Adams) doesn't particularly like Freddie. We're not sure for which reason.  Is Dodd the tamer?  Is he interested in reforming Freddie? Is Freddie his id? His past self? His test subject or friend or would-be lover? We're never quite sure.
 What we do know is that Phoenix is disturbingly convincing as Freddie to the point that he changes in front of our very eyes to becomes something twisted and deformed by circumstances.  It's frightening, in a way, to watch someone so physically committed to a role. He tears rooms apart, throws his body against prison bunks and stalks, postured birdlike and constantly tense, looking for a fight in every new space he enters.  Of course, part of Phoenix's strength here is thanks to a certain chemistry with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who embodies the majestic persona of his character with tremendous ease.  There's a scene in which Dodd subjects Freddie to the 'cult' initiation of 'processing' that should probably be filed away in the dictionary under the very definition of 'acting'.  It's a tense, harried interaction in which every line of dialogue, every motion, and every second builds to scene as impressive as it is infuriating. I wanted it to end immediately even as I wanted it to continue indefinitely (the old 'the suspense is terrible...i hope it lasts).
I've avoided reading any criticism or theories surrounding The Master.  This is, I'll admit, more so because I just haven't had the time to look into what other people made of it than because I've really been interested in forming my own distinct opinions.  I left that long lobby conversation puzzling over the intricacies and nuances of Anderson's work.  The point of the story, it seemed, was obfuscated in a way that should have been troubling.  The realities of the characters, too, were probably blocked.  The process of arriving at these questions, though, was spellbinding.  I'll return to my earlier thought and repeat it again: everything about The Master is so deliberately executed that I have trouble believing the overall product was an afterthought.  Perhaps we are supposed to leave befuddled or questioning what it is we just saw.  Perhaps we have undergone a processing of our own, or our viewing experience is meant to mirror the fractured psychology of Freddie Quell. Perhaps this is an induction, perhaps we're supposed to believe in something that isn't there at all. A god, a cult, time travel, a basic narrative structure.  I can't pretend to know, but I'm having a hell of a time coming up with the possibilities.


  1. Your review is absolutely beautiful (I love visiting here often, your writing style is great), but I had completely different thoughts on this one.

  2. Wow, full on movie - I want to see it so badly! Cursing at the movie cinema possibilities here, I wish I could spend all that money on those movies yet they haven't even premiered in Sweden. I envy people who can see the cool movies so early.. and who build up my excitement with amazing reviews!

  3. Fantastic review! This is the second glowing review I read this week for The Master - really can't wait to see it. I love the films I can write theories about, it's my favorite kind of movie - the one that just can't leave your thoughts.

  4. Freddie Quell and the Sandwoman will be this year's top couple Halloween costume, I'm sure.


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