Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Master - Movie Review

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons and Laura Dern.
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.


I have liked all of Paul Thomas Anderson's movies up to this point, and I can't really say I liked this one so much as I respect it.  I read one review that said Anderson was "freed from traditional narrative." I need to pay closer attention to phrases like that.  There's a growing trend in "artful" movies, where they're ditching common hooks like plot, story, and resolution.

PTA is not as egregious a violator of narrative like Terrence Malick, a director who has less story with every movie he makes.  But here is his least conventional movie to date, and I have a hard time imagining even coastal movie critics coming out exhilarated.  It's more of a "so... that happened."  The first metaphor that popped into my brain during the closing credits was the caucus race from Alice in Wonderland.  Round and round we go, and once it stops, we're about where we started.

The movie starts with Freddie Quells (Joaquin Phoenix), a drunken WWII sailor who concocts different formulas for getting inebriated.  Paint thinner being an ingredient sometimes.  Freddie isn't bright in most respects.  He is pure pubescent id, unable to control himself, full of raw emotion.  After the war we see he gets psychiatric treatment but he's left to drift on his own, and his temper doesn't allow him to keep a job long.

(Now some have referred to this as a fictional take on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, but the comparisons are vague enough that Tom Cruise saw the movie, and he and PTA are still friends.  I'm inserting this here to get it out of the way.)

Freddie eventually drifts into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), though his name is rarely said.  He's more often referred to as "Master."  Dodd, it turns out, is leader of "the Cause," a religious movement that posits you can recall past lives and use them to cure disease and achieve a form of enlightenment or perfection.  Dodd's wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams) is a true believer and as much a driver of the Cause as Dodd himself.

Freddie starts to develop a sense of purpose in Dodd's service, and Dodd's techniques for "processing" expand Freddie's mind in ways he hadn't been tested.

But Freddie is a man who lives on the surface, in the moment.  If he wants to get drunk, he gets drunk.  If he gets mad, he hits someone.  If he hears a fart, he giggles.  Dodd is his opposite, a well-groomed superego, a charming charlatan who lives the life of benevolent leader 24/7.

Phoenix gives a ferocious performance.  His body is contorted in ways that made me wonder if he dislocated his shoulders for the entire shoot or what.  His face has the squint and snear of a sailor who had one side of his face against the sun too long.  Hoffman, meanwhile, is the terrible flip side to the coin.  Patient, charismatic, believing every word he peddles, even as his philosophy unravels.

Dodd's wife is pregnant most of the movie, as if vessel for the Jacob-and-Esau dynamic with Freddie and Dodd, two men who struggle with yet complete each other.  Freddie gets intellectual stimulation and friendship, Dodd gets vicarious enjoyment from his henchman's emotional freedom.  In the end, when time's passed, and when she confronts Freddie, the baby gone (we're never told when it was born), she calls their efforts in helping him "pointless."  Some may have the knee-jerk reaction to say the same thing about the movie.

The final shot made me wonder how much of it was real. Was some of it just a dream?  Is Freddie in some sort of Jacob's Ladder limbo?  None of the characters are really different from when we started.

Phoenix and Hoffman should be nominated for their work here, and depending on the depth of the field, so should Adams.  It's also gorgeous to look at, having been shot in 70mm.  I just hope this doesn't represent a new direction for PTA where he abandons those enjoyable little tools like "plot advancement" to be more artsy in his work.  I would caution most people to see at your own risk.  I wouldn't say the ending answers any questions, and you have to think about it for a while.

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