Review: The Master
P.T. Anderson is the most ambitious American director working today; and, with The Master, he has given us the most beautifully shot, scored, and acted film of 2012 so far.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is easily his most ambiguous film to date. The movie is an opaque, post-war meditation that hones in on themes of spirituality, religion, loyalty and betrayal, without communicating any clear point of view about any of them. How you feel about this film will depend largely on how you feel about film in general, and your own expectations of the medium. The Master offers no easy answers–it doesn’t tell you how to feel about its characters or their struggles. There are no clear protagonists or antagonists. The principle players are richly drawn, but their motivations are not always clear. To some the story may seem half-baked, while others may regard it as a novel approach to plotting. Either way, Anderson presents the film in a way that feels downright unfamiliar–heck, even challenging–and that in itself will surely frustrate audiences.
Less ambiguous is the quality of the film’s acting: both of the lead performances are deserving of Oscars. Philip Seymour Hoffman, appearing in his fifth Anderson film, plays Lancaster Dodd. Dodd, the influential leader of a new religion called The Cause, is partially based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Hoffman plays the part expertly, oscillating between the modes of genuine likability and petulant narcissism that one might expect of a man who feels that he holds all of life’s answers. When lecturing on The Cause, he’s all charisma and charm. But when challenged, he devolves into a child–resorting in one particular argument to profane name-calling. Joaquin Phoenix is even better as Freddie Quell, a badly damaged veteran, who is crass, animalistic, and prone to unpredictable violence. Phoenix disappears into the role. He plays Quell as a shell of a man. With his shoulders perpetually hunched, his words slide uncertainly out the side of his mouth. He regularly gets black out drunk, infusing his homemade concoctions with paint thinner and rubbing alcohol. Anderson hints at his dark past. Amy Adams is also excellent as Dodd’s Lady Macbeth of a wife, Peggy.
While drifting between jobs, Freddie makes his way aboard a docked boat. The boat turns out to belong to Dodd, who has chartered it to perform and host his daughter’s wedding ceremony–as well as to continue with his work expanding the literature of The Cause. When Dodd meets Quell, instead of throwing him off, he invites him stay. Initially he seems to see in Freddie an opportunity to test The Cause’s therapeutic practices. If he can help a man as damaged as Quell, he can help anyone. In Dodd, Freddie sees everything that has been denied to him–a father figure, a friend, an advisor. For Dodd, at least, the fascination with Freddie grows into something more–he develops personal feelings for the man that are difficult to describe. And Freddie’s loyalty to Dodd quickly becomes dangerous for critics and naysayers of The Cause. There are several wonderful scenes between the two men, the best of which occurs during a “Processing” exercise in which Freddie recalls a doomed romance.
The Master is undeniably the most beautifully shot film of 2012. Cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare Jr. (Tetro, Youth Without Youth) offers several shots that stick with you long after the credits roll. Working with 70mm film stock, the high resolution of the imagery–as well as the vibrancy of the color–is undeniable. Words cannot do justice to the film’s finest images: a single point perspective shot of a ship’s wake in the water, the long tracking shot Freddie being chased through an iceberg lettuce farm, the 1950′s off-yellow background color in Freddie’s department store photography shots. A motorcycle joy-ride through the desert that begins in the daytime and ends at dusk truly demonstrates Malaimare’s own mastery.
The film’s shortcoming, then, may be Anderson’s own agnosticism toward the material. He doesn’t seem to condemn The Cause or Dodd, but neither does he approve of them.
The score by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood is also the best of the year. The moods he creates with sound work as perfect counterparts to the action. At times he’s ominous and foreboding. Elsewhere the music feels manic and jittery. Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood was denied Oscar contention for containing derivative works (i.e. samples). It will be interesting to see if he is snubbed again.
P.T. Anderson is the most ambitious American director working today; and, with The Master, he has given us the most beautifully shot, scored, and acted film of 2012 so far. The film’s shortcoming, then, may be Anderson’s own agnosticism toward the material. He doesn’t seem to condemn The Cause or Dodd, but neither does he approve of them. The film asks if Freddie is better off in the end for having fallen in with Dodd, but neglects to offer any obvious answer. For the first time in his career Anderson seems ambivalent toward his characters and their beliefs. I suspect that the touchiness of the film’s relationship to Scientology plays a part in this. This lack of an obvious point of view lessens the effect of the climactic scene; and, the high quality of the film overall makes the flaws in the story seem even more pronounced. Perhaps the point is that men like Quell and Dodd need each other, but that alone doesn’t feel like enough.