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The Master Puzzles and Dazzles and Always Demands Your Attention

The Master
Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Weinstein Company, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson is the greatest filmmaker working today.  Of the top directors who have emerged in the last two decades, perhaps only the Coens are close, and you’ve got Wes Anderson and Christopher Nolan hovering around somewhere, too.  He’s what Scorsese or Coppola or Altman or Kubrick was in the seventies, a writer/director who is not afraid to produce a challenging work, made with the idea that we’re supposed to be able to savor what we watch when we sit down in a cinema.

Obviously the problem with a movie like The Master right off the bat is that you’re going to be told how amazing it is over and over before you actually get to see it.  That’s something I wish I could completely avoid at times.  Hype is the worst thing that can happen to a movie as far as giving it its fair shake.  You might very well go into The Master saying, “Well this is supposed to be great.  Now impress me.”  It’s like going up to a comedian and asking him, “Say something funny.”  No matter what the case, The Master will deserve multiple viewings for a variety of reasons: it’s the kind of movie that will have you questioning what you have seen, and it has a lot of dimensions.  You may not even like it as much as you have been led to believe you would after a first viewing.  It’s not meant to be The Avengers, where you leave the theatre slapping someone on the back and exclaiming, “How ’bout that Hulk, huh?!”

The Master focuses on World War II vet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, who is definitely as amazing as advertised) who in his post-war life has been struggling to find something to be a part of.  Unfortunately, because he drinks potentially lethal mind-altering concoctions, OR because he’s seen the horrors of war, OR he’s been damaged long before then, OR it’s a combination of all those things, he consistently finds himself a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.  He usually finds himself in trouble because of antisocial behavior, and is unable to keep friends.  One of the scenes that highlights this right off the bat, one that has been discussed already in a bunch of other reviews, is how his Navy buddies build a naked woman out of sand on a beach, and Quell starts having sex with it, much to the delight of all his friends who take it as a joke.  But then, he takes it too far, and he finds himself isolated.

After knocking back more of his awful drinks, he happens by a boat having a wedding party.  On it is the man everyone calls “The Master,” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman, clearly one of the best actors of this generation), who has just written a book called The Cause.  The parallels between Dodd and L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics are pretty clear, although we’re supposed to believe he’s an amalgam of a bunch of other cult-like figures of the day.  It just so happens that the L. Ron Hubbard connection is the one we know the most, because Scientology is such a controversial topic today and it is represented by one of the most famous men on the planet of all time, Tom Cruise.  I’m not sure it matters all that much, if Anderson did indeed decide to combine a whole bunch of these cult leaders into one man.  I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between one or another anyway.  They all come believing they know the answers.

Freddie finds himself on the boat, making fast friends with Dodd because Dodd has gotten his hands on Freddie’s hooch.  Dodd offers the promise of friendship, and the promise that his “Cause” will be able to rehabilitate him, will be able to make him normal, be able to get back on track somehow.  This is why the movement is so attractive to Freddie and why he agrees to come along.  Freddie is quickly introduced into a strange test of questions, which lays down the groundwork for a lot of religions: the more rules it has, the harder it is to adhere to its ideology, the more legitimate it appears, even if the tests are impossible to pass.

He becomes a sort of lieutenant in this new religion, a position he’s not really been asked to do, but becomes Dodd’s “muscle.”  Anyone who speaks out against “The Cause” is subject to Freddie’s outbursts, and while it’s frowned upon in general, Dodd seems to privately enjoy it.  Freddie’s outbursts draw the ire of Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams, who is great in her own right), who believes he is well, a lost Cause.  Interestingly enough, Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons) doesn’t believe in his father’s movement at all, but he finds himself irrevocably wrapped up in it.

What makes Dodd and Freddie’s freindship even more complex is that Freddie doesn’t seem to believe in The Cause either.  This is the challenge Freddie always finds himself in: he wants to be included, but he can’t play ball.  He can’t be a part of anything without destroying it.

This is a movie that demands attention, and you can’t take it all in with one viewing.  There are moments where the plot feels like a dream.  The structure of the movie feels like A Clockwork Orange at times: it’s about a person who desperately needs help, but is thrown into a controversial treatment for his “disease,” one that doesn’t really have a chance in hell of working in the long run and can only facilitate more detriments to his mental health.  At the center of this is Joaquin Phoenix, pretty much making good on all the promise he’s shown since To Die For.  His strange journey through I’m Still Here has shown the guy is willing to do anything for a movie.  It’s one of those very intense method performances, but he’s not spending the whole movie manically crazy.  His quiet moments are as good as his outbursts.

Let’s not forget Hoffman and Adams, here.  I recently went through all the Hoffman performances in the last decade, and you really can’t think of one that’s bad, or even average.  He’s memorable in every movie he does, and he’s got a long list of characters that he has slipped into in a way that looks seamless.  Adams has shown she’s no second fiddle, but she steps out of the way here, which is a noble thing in any movie and her character quietly exudes a ton of influence on the direction of Dodd’s religion, subtly handled by Anderson in a way that on future viewings will shed more light.  In the background is this woman, who might be silently pulling the strings in a world that still isn’t quite going to take a woman seriously on matters of intellectualism.

Anderson here is hitting on all cylinders.  It might be too easy to compare this to his last film, There Will Be Blood.  Looking back on my original review of that movie, I didn’t like it nearly as much as I do now.  And that’s the mark of someone who is great at what he does.  In the case of Anderson, you might enjoy a movie he made and think that’s as far as it goes, but then you’ll watch the movie again and start seeing things you didn’t before, and all the sudden that movie is a classic and you wondered why you didn’t think that way after the first time.  Expectation can hurt a film, but missing those subtle things that add up to a greater whole can as well.  The Master will be that way for many: I expect most people to come up to me and say they didn’t care for it too much.

I watched this movie in 70mm in New York, a place where almost every critically-acclaimed movie I’ve ever watched was accompanied by ripples of applause at the beginning of the credits.  My viewing took awhile: a solitary, delayed clap brought on a wave of more applause after.  Some of the snippets of discussion I caught afterwards were asking why the movie decided to focus on Quell rather than Scientology as a whole.  I have an answer for that: it’s not a damning expose on Scientology, that’s why.  You can see that this “Cause” religion is ridiculous, and Anderson does more than enough to hammer that home.  And if this were a damning expose on Scientology, what movie would you have after that, really?  Do you go into the movie not knowing that it’s ridiculous?  Don’t you already know the answer to that question?  But it’s more about how humans interact in a cult-ish religion, and it focuses on two opposite people forging an unlikely friendship, over alcohol of course.

Also, don’t forget: this movie can be quite funny at times. It’s not all serious and intense. There’s a line, I won’t share it here so you can be surprised by it, where a character starts informing another of something in a very calm, collected way, and then the anger boils over like a switch is flipped and very succinctly, an expletive is thrown at the person like a good hard right to the jaw.

Obviously, this has gotten me to write at great length.  I encourage everyone to watch this when they get a chance.  It’s definitely something worth being discussed.


Comment from Jonathan
Time: September 20, 2012, 5:55 pm

Great review. Really looking forward to this. You are right about Hoffman; he might not be my favorite actor, but he might be one I consider the most consistent and versatile (I’d put him in the same league as Morgan Freeman). I think the “effortless” tag you give him is dead on which is probably why he doesn’t always stand out because he makes it look so easy. And then you think back to movies like “Hard Eight” (also Anderson) and “Owning Mahoney” (One of the ten most underrated films of the past decade). Even in a crap movie like “Twister” you can easily say he was the best thing about it.

Comment from Jonathan
Time: September 21, 2012, 3:01 pm

And by Hard Eight I mean Boogie Nights.

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