Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Master

The aloof, unsettling start to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master sets the stage for a challenging, thoroughly absorbing, continually confounding piece of work.  A collection of shots, mostly centered around a garrulous Joaquin Phoenix, gorgeously photographed showing a man, clearly distraught, constantly boozed, staggering around-- a beach, a naval ship-- lack a formal cohesive center, while filmed under the utmost control.  The staggering craftsmanship at hand in The Master is easy to appreciate-- it showcases a filmmaker at the top of his artistic stride, perhaps even furthering the beautifully chilly vistas of There Will Be Blood, it's the narrative leaps and characters and themes that boggle, shake and leave the film with a quizzical sense of unrelenting questioning.  While The Master made early headlines and media controversy as that Paul Thomas Anderson film that was inspired by the origins of Scientology, it's clear that was a mere stepping stone for a more thoughtful, thought-provoking, ever challenging and heady piece of work that delves into the nature of a seemingly powerless man overtaken by a seemingly powerful one.  Only those duels are constantly at odds, and ever changing.  With serious thematic material like religion, cults and a distillation of the American Dream circa early 1950s as backdrop, The Master may be the most difficult American film in recent years to tackle, yet my mind still drifts back to the opening shots-- beautiful, absorbing and intriguingly and falsely innocent (and filmed in luscious 70mm by Mihai Malaimare, Jr.)

We later learn that Phoenix's character is Freddie Quell, a veteran of World War II, struggling to acclimate back into civilian.  He's soused and unpredictable, a condition that likely began far before the wounds of war accentuated his behavior.  He finds work as a department store photographer, only seemingly interested in gathering materials for his homemade tonics and chasing the skirts that come his way.  This beast of a performance is nearly breathtaking because of the constantly hunched over, ever longing physicality that Phoenix brings to Freddie.  A man whose incapable of sitting still, and with every mumbling line reading may spark an animated bust of laughter or an unplanned fight, he's all id-- all action and reaction with zero thought or control over his actions.  It's the deftest and most thoroughly unattainable piece of acting in his career, and a redemptive reminder of his scope and depth as an actor.  He distills a strong sense that he's in need of something.

He finds that something after drunkenly crashing a cruise ship.  Belonging to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a grandiose intellectual sort of man, who sees something else in Freddie.  The leader and master of a newly founded group entitled The Cause, Lancaster is drawn to this 'scoundrel' either as project or protector.  The bulk and beauty of The Master is the interplay between Phoenix and Hoffman who square off against one another in a series of rattling sequences, showcasing the complexity and continual one-ups-mans-ship of their characters.  They quietly start to bond as master and protege engage in the first of a series of "processing," a powerfully filmed and acted scene Lancaster begins to shake Freddie and build a hold over him.  However, the id of Freddie is unpredictable and the animal instincts that Lancaster is forever trying to destroy, come out in dangerous showcases of loyalty.  After a while it begins to ask the question as to who exactly has the upper hand here.  The first quiver in Lancaster comes at a Cause party that is rattled by a skeptic, which merely prompts Freddie to beat the man up as a sign of respect.

Hoffman opposes Phoenix's naturalism by expressing a formal theatricality to his performance.  And while that dichotomy is sometimes a bit jarring-- nearly in the same vein as Daniel Day-Lewis' grand Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood-- it works because his Lancaster is nearly a staged performer in his own right, aggressively trying to seduce and charm his following.  It also creates a further, if intentional, barrier in truly understanding his Lancaster.  He, just as the ever expansive film, becomes more at arms reach as it continues.  This continues with his Peggy (Amy Adams), a similarly hard to crack character introduced as dowdy long suffering wife, only to be questioned as the film goes on as a figure more menacing below the surface-- all Anderson hints at is distorted through contemptuous reactionary close-ups and isolated line readings.  To be sure, there's far more interest in Freddie and Lancaster as they duel and wage verbal warfare upon each other.  Lancaster's "processing" of Freddie becomes more intense and controlling as a sense of his loyalty starts to waver; Freddie still longing connection to something argues and writhes while trying to remain dutiful.  All the while, Jonny Greenwood's aggressively unsettling and cinematically enriching score roars in the background.

The aching challenge of The Master, and it's near refusal to offer emotional peace keeping, will engage as often as it repels, but the powerful scope and ambitious nature of Anderson's film will endure.  Even with its flaws, the film prevails because of its insurmountable scope and bravura in craft and technique.  This is film that requires conversation, debate and patience.  As artful as it is pretentious, and as oblique as it is bewitching.  Sorting through the lines of exactly Anderson is trying to say, and more importantly, not saying, make The Master worthy of whatever its cinematic legacy will become.  A-  

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