Monday, September 24, 2012

To Lead or To Follow: A Look at Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

     One of my most anticipated films of the year, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, is filled with incredible (easily some of the best of the year) performances and top-notch direction that layers thick tension and beautiful cinematography on the viewer. It shouldn't come as a surprise: ever since Anderson's first film, Hard Eight, he has created some of the most interesting characters and stories in modern American cinema--Adam Sandler's toilet plunger salesman in Punch-Drunk Love, Tom Cruise's misogynistic character arc in Magnolia ("Respect the Cock!"), and Daniel Day-Lewis's otherworldly performance in--one of the best films of the 2000s--There Will Be Blood come specifically to mind. With The Master, Anderson has created yet another interesting and unique story, this time about a man referred to as "the Master", who helps create a faith-based organization that is very Scientology-esque, and an unpredictably violent drifter who becomes wrapped up in the religion's powerful grip. It's a great film, and although the story lacks a specific sense of purpose (and the film as a whole never reaches the greatness of 2007's There Will be Blood), the two lead performances by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are plenty enough reason to stare in awe at the screen.
     I'm hesitant to keep mentioning There Will Be Blood, but since it's Paul Thomas Anderson's last and best film, it's surely relevant. Out of all of Anderson's cinematic directions, The Master is most similar to There Will Be Blood--stylistically and aesthetically (even Jonny Greenwood's score bears similarities). But where There Will Be Blood left the viewer with a sense of dread and foreboding, The Master deals with more daily human plights: the need to follow, the need to fit in, the need to be a part of a cause, whatever that cause may be. Lancaster Dodd (Seymour Hoffman), also known as The Master, is the leader of an up-and-coming faith-based organization that has connections to the real-life practice of Scientology. Dodd performs "processing" on his followers, which is basically a series of questions which causes the subject's spirit to get in touch with its other incarnations throughout the span of time. Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of this enigmatic character is wonderful: he's the jovial writer of books that have retained many followers, and he thinks he has the secret to the human existence. But Dodd, with his snake-oil salesman charm, only realizes his full potential when drifter Freddie Quell shows up at his doorstep.
     Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled man, and he's the real star of The Master. The film starts with different scenes of Freddie as he drifts through different jobs. He mainly thinks about two things: sex and getting black-out drunk. Early in the film, he's either rigorously masturbating to a sand sculpture of a naked woman or concocting dangerous alcoholic mixtures with paint thinner or rocket fuel (or anything else that will alter his state of mind). He's a lost soul, and a dangerous one: anything will set this man off towards a violent episode--a crying baby, running out of hooch, a sarcastic remark. It's hard to explain Phoenix's performance in The Master. It's something that has to be seen to truly be believed. After his break from acting after the (now known) parody of celebrity culture (and semi-documentary) I'm Still Here, Phoenix needed to make a statement, and he surely does here: filling Freddie with nervous laughter, a fascinating anxiety, and incredible destructive alcoholism, his portrayal of Freddie is the best performance of the year (or of many years).
     On a particularly lost night for Freddie, he drunkenly hops the railing of a heavenly sailing vessel that leaves its port and heads out into the open ocean. This is Dodd's boat, and once the master meets his unknown drifter, it sparks the creativity in him to continue his writings for "the cause". Freddie, seemingly stumbling upon a reason to keep on keeping on, becomes something of an acolyte to Dodd--his right-hand-man, a lost cause that becomes loyal and thuggish in his defense of the one person who has finally accepted him for who he is: a troubled man with more to give than just a sip of his homemade hooch. Throughout the second half of The Master, director Anderson intricately layers complexity upon complexity on the two character's relationship. They feed off of each other: Freddie looks to be accepted into the cause despite his violent episodes and battle with booze, and Dodd realizes the importance of accepting and trying to help any "animal" that is trying to become a man. But like any faith, Dodd's cause is ripe for criticism. Is the master "making it up as he goes along", as his grown son (Breaking Bad's Jessie Plemons) states? Or is "the cause" worth following unquestionably with the utmost loyalty, as Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, in super-serious mode) does?
     Organizing your thoughts after one viewing of The Master is a tricky proposition. The film will definitely benefit from a second viewing. Like Freddie's daily battle with his sexual and alcohol appetite, criticizing The Master is a challenge. One surely couldn't write this movie off as a simple critique on Scientology, a film to make Tom Cruise squirm or L. Ron Hubbard roll in his grave. What is The Master trying to tell us? An easy answer is never revealed. The final third of the film is slower and a bit confusing, entering into Freddie's (maybe?) dream-like imaginations and second guessing. But the film, at it's heart, is about man trying to live a philosophical life, while also questioning the basis of life itself. It's challenging and thoughtful, and it has two performances that both will surely win awards at the end of the year. Ultimately, The Master is a film that solidifies the fact that Paul Thomas Anderson is--above all--a cinematic master.     (A)

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