Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Master Movie Review

I’ll say this much for Paul Thomas Anderson: he’s one of the few filmmakers working within the Hollywood system who can consistently make gutsy and challenging films. He doesn’t pander to any audience; his endings don’t come wrapped in tight packages; there is no paint-by-numbers to tell you exactly how to feel and when. He creates emotionally and spiritually complex works that often leave us scratching our heads and that maybe, just maybe, leave us a little better off as human beings than when we walked into his world.

With that said, I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by his films. I don’t object to their complexity or challenges, but I have misgivings about the general lack of joy to be found at any moments in The Master. Boogie Nights and Magnolia are films I can watch over and over, finding joy amid the tremendous sorrow every time. There was real vibrancy and panache in Anderson’s directing style. He combined the dexterity of Altman maintaining multiple characters and threads with the energy of Scorsese. Then he started to go quiet.

I wonder now if the flare he exhibited in his earlier films was what he had to do to win the approval of studio execs so he could eventually make films the way he ‘really’ wanted to. Maybe that’s unfair because it suggests he doesn’t fully stand behind those films, which is not what I mean. It’s just that The Master, fascinating though it is as a character study, feels cold and lifeless. That’s not what I expect from the man who found some smidge of optimism in the otherwise detrimental storylines of Magnolia.

Anderson’s latest is focused on two men, each of whom could hardly seem more dissimilar in temperament, but are kindred spirits, at least in the eyes of one of them. They are Freddie Quell, a U.S. Navy WWII veteran, and Lancaster Dodd, the spiritual leader of a new movement known simply as “The Cause.” To observe Freddie is to recognize a man in moral, spiritual, and psychological decay. He is, to put it crudely, a madman. He is an alcoholic who has a gift for crafting strange brews of substances such as paint thinner, photo development chemicals, or torpedo fuel, and then imbibing them. When we see him lay on top of and start humping a sand sculpture of a nude woman that his sea mates have made on the shore of some idyllic island in the south Pacific, or we see him masturbating into the ocean, we might disregard this as the antics of a young man lost in war and deprived of the pleasures of female company. When his behavior at home after settling back in seems not far removed from such crass sexual acts, we begin to understand he is a man in need of serious help.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie in a performance of such unearthly physicality it makes you almost queasy to watch him. He stands slouched with his back arched in a way that I imagine must cause great discomfort over time. He keeps his elbows bent outward, hands on hips with thumbs pointed down. His posture constantly reveals a man uncomfortable in his own skin and unsure of how to present himself before the world. Phoenix sinks so deeply inside this troubled character that I’m surprised the performance followed his experiment in which he pretended to go nuts and have a breakdown in real life. He is truly fulfilling the promise of a great acting career that his brother River might have had without his tragic death in 1993.

Lancaster Dodd is an inviting and slightly warm individual. He welcomes Freddie onto his chartered yacht (even though he drunkenly stumbled on board) and takes him under his wing. There is hardly a part Philip Seymour Hoffman has played flawed and I’ve never seen him miscast, whether it’s a sensitive and caring nurse, the effete Truman Capote seeking human truth in unspeakable horror, or the defeated Willy Loman on the Broadway stage. As Dodd, he is steadfast, manipulative and just about boiling over with anger. He is building a movement on a foundation of quicksand, but he believes in it. Freddie’s vulnerability is exactly the kind of thing a man like Dodd preys upon. He is the perfect specimen to become not just a follower of his philosophy, but to even manage it with him side-by-side. Certainly Dodd’s own son, Val (Jesse Plemons, bearing an uncanny physical resemblance to Hoffman) is not the man to follow in his footsteps. He sees through the ruse, or what he perceives to be such.

Anderson’s films stand out for two primary reasons: great writing and great acting. This film is no exception. In addition to two outstanding leads, Amy Adams plays Dodd’s wife Peggy. It’s yet another in a series of small, but tough and surly young women Adams has gotten way too good at. I think she has yet to develop into a great actress, but she certainly can if she can break away from roles that I continue to find very similar. Laura Dern has a small, but pivotal, role as a devoted follower of “The Cause” who gets a small taste of his true colors when she challenges him on a contradictory point in his latest writings.

The pacing of the film feels less deliberately dense than in Anderson’s earlier films. It has a more meandering feel, which I find interesting considering the number of main characters is significantly lower. I just found it very hard to connect with the presentation of the material. It feels so much like Anderson has engaged us in an intellectual exercise, but forgotten that the primary purpose of narrative cinema is to entertain through storytelling. It reminded me very much of a Stanley Kubrick film. Kubrick often faced criticism of making films that were cold and detached while being perfectly crafted. I have no doubts about The Master’s greatness on a technical level – it’s clearly made by a man whose understanding of narrative construction on film tops almost anyone else working today – but at the end of a ‘great’ film I want to feel like I can’t wait to see it again. This is the third Anderson film in a row that I haven’t felt that. Most of Kubrick’s films took the better part of a decade for many people to see the genius. Maybe there’s something in The Master that will bring me back one day, but that day isn’t now.

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