Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: "The Master"

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Runtime: 137 minutes

"We are not animals. Maaaaaan is not a part of the animal kingdom," intones Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) over a tape to his followers in The Master. Yet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), by his very existence, seems to have been planted on this earth to challenge Dodd's assertion. The two play off of each other in a manner that feels like an evolved version of the father-son bond in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood. Only this time, the "son" figure isn't so impressionable, and is more like a wild animal in need of taming. Where Blood was overall more centered on one man's journey, Anderson's latest brings the father figure/son figure conflict to the forefront. The results may not be as immediately epic, but they are equally compelling, and quite obviously the work of a master.

Set amid the aftermath of WWII, The Master follows Phoenix's Freddie as he struggles to make his way in the world after returning from combat. He struggles to interact with others, often breaking out into fits of lust or violence, which doesn't exactly go over well at his various places of employment. He also has a fixation with crafting insanely strong alcoholic concoctions, which involve zesty ingredients like paint thinner. After one bout of drunkenness, Freddie stumbles aboard a ship bound for New York City. Its passengers are Dodd, his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and the devoted followers of The Cause, Dodd's religion/philosophy/vague Scientology stand-in. Despite their drastically different natures, Dodd's civilized man and Quell's twitchy anti-socialite, they begin to bond. Dodd introduces Freddie to his family and his followers, and takes him under his wing in an attempt to help him overcome his demons. 

Rumored to be loosely based on the founding of Scientology, Anderson eschews controversy and allows Dodd and The Cause to act as their own entities. There's no mention of thetans or Lord Xenu, but The Cause does involve sessions that might have some resemblance to auditing processes that often come up in Scientology discussions. Dodd's devout followers are more than ready to be "processed," while Quell presents a special sort of challenge. And from this challenge comes The Master's greatest strength. From the Quell-Dodd dynamic Anderson manages to craft an understatedly epic drama about man's resistance and submission to various forms of authority. Quell may be under Dodd's seemingly all-encompassing wing, but even Dodd goes quietly when an incident results in his arrest. Freddie, meanwhile, has no master, and he fights the authorities off like a rabid dog. 

As embodied by Phoenix and Hoffman, these two figures command one's attention, whether they're sharing the screen or not. Hoffman, a longtime Anderson collaborator, delivers a mix of self-importance and self-righteousness that is coupled with an easy going, affable patriarch figure. Through Anderson's lens we're able to see Dodd as a manipulator, a caring father, and even a boorish drunk, and Hoffman makes the character's facets flow together seamlessly. Yet even though Hoffman may play the titular Master, it's Phoenix who owns the film. His face is perpetually contorted into a half sneer, half twitch, further enforcing the idea that he sticks out from normal society. Phoenix's posture is another marvel of physical acting. His gaunt, emaciated frame is constantly hunched over, and he roams through many scenes like some mentally unstable vulture.  As the man and the man-animal bond and clash, the acting fireworks are few and far between, but both men hit their marks when the time comes.

Though not nearly as prominent, Amy Adams is also excellent. Anderson uses the character sparingly, and the actress takes on the mix of charming house wife and iron maiden with aplomb. Other characters abound, but the core of the film is Phoenix and Hoffman's dynamic, and Anderson never strays from this. This strategy allows the film some room to incorporate its third leading man: Mr. Anderson himself. Continuing his Kubrick-influenced phase, the director has once again created a world of character study blown up against an inexplicably epic-feeling backdrop, all while retaining an eerie sense of distance. The filmmaking is unsentimental to the max, even as it charts the ups and downs of Quell and Dodd's relationship, as well as their relationship to society at large. Coupled with Anderson's screenplay, this can lead to the film meandering. But what compelling meandering it is. 

The opening stretches of The Master, most notably Quell and Dodd's first encounter, represent the driest portions. Yet once the narrative settles into the middle (and the film is 85-90% shapeless middle), Anderson cuts loose. The film runs for over two hours, yet it rarely, if ever, lags, despite the sense that the massive middle isn't building to an obvious conclusion. Anderson takes great pleasure in luxuriating in his character's lives, and watching Freddie struggle to cope with The Cause's subtly (perhaps randomly) evolving methods and teachings showcases the director's best Kubrickian influences. 

Further enhancing Anderson's grasp over the material is the first class work from his artistic and technical collaborators. Longtime Anderson cinematographer Robert Elswitt may be absent, but replacement Mihai Malaimare Jr. fills his shoes and crafts some remarkable imagery that adds to the low-key epic feel of the film. Anderson's returning collaborators don't disappoint either. Costume designer Mark Bridges (fresh off of an Oscar win for The Artist) convincingly recreates the period along with the spare but excellent production design of Jack Fisk. And returning composer Jonny Greenwood creates another moody and menacing score, announcing its presence without manipulating our emotions. Greenwood has, once again, composed music that makes itself known, yet compliments the atmosphere without drawing attention away from the characters. 

There are many who may be turned off by The Master. Its initial dryness may, for some, extend beyond the first few reels. And, as was often the case with Kubrick, the perceived distance from the characters, despite their centrality, may turn some off of the performances. Those expecting another There Will be Blood could also potentially find themselves let down, or merely taken aback by the film's less forward-charging narrative. And then there are those who will, for whatever odd difference, be able to bask in the film's clinical pleasures just as Freddie soaks up the sun as he lies on the beach, his head rested up against a woman made out of sand. The animal in his natural habitat, free from any master.

Grade: A

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