The Master, by Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012
Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the most talented and interesting writer/directors working today. His choices of subject matter for his films are always fascinating and provocative, be it the rise and fall of the porn industry in the late 70's and early 80's in Boogie Nights, or the greedy and sociopathic oil tycoon in There Will Be Blood. In his latest film, The Master, Anderson explores the founding of a cultish new belief system on the rise in the 1950's, specifically through its charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and a new recruit, a mentally unbalanced drifter (Joaquin Phoenix).
The drifter, Freddie Quell, is truly a mess. We learn much about him in the early scenes. Among other things, we learn he had an absent father and an instutionalized mother, he's clearly suffering from PTSD after fighting in the Pacific, and is prone to violent outbursts. He concocts and guzzles beverages out of any chemicals he can find, including paint thinner, ground up prescription drugs and whatever other forms of brain damage are lying around. But more than anything, he just longs for a real human connection, something Freddie is tragically incapable of.
The Master, AKA Lancaster Dodd, just sees Freddie as a project. They're drawn to each other for very different reasons. Freddie truly tries to believe in what Dodd espouses "The Cause", but his fractured mind just can't connect with it. What he really wants is a father figure who will show him some real affection. Dodd wants to use Freddie as the ultimate proof that his various tests, mind games, and parlor tricks can change a man. It's very hard to tell where Dodd's sympathy ends and his manipulations begin. Everything he does seems to be a ploy to exert his control over this poor square peg. He's cold and calculating, unless he feels he's losing Freddie, then he's all buddy-buddy.
As expected in Anderson's films, the performances in The Master are all around incredible. Hoffman, Phoenix, and Amy Adams (as Dodd's wife and devoted follower), all give performances worthy of Oscar nominations. They may not win this year, but at the very least, I think Phoenix deserves it for his total transformation.
The cinematography is beautiful too, of course. Anderson is continuing further down the stylistic road he began with There Will Be Blood. This second leg of his career appears to be less Altman and Scorsese, waaaaaay more Kubrick. Lots of one-point perspectives. There are shots so beautifully composed in The Master, I must have gasped or something, because my wife told me she actually heard me reacting to them.
Also, as unsettling and creepy as Paul Thomas Anderson's movies can get, they're often strangely hilarious as well. The Master is no different. It's loaded with bizarre, funny moments, such as Dodd's love of Kool cigarettes, an explosive scene between the two of them at a jail, or a scene where Dodd is embarrassingly called out by a skeptic (possibly the most important scene in the movie). These touches of humor are always underscored with a hint of menace or sadness, but they do provide some much needed levity to a very, very dark story.
I've heard a lot of criticism directed toward The Master saying that it looks great and the performances are great, but it fails to "gel" or come together in the end. I wasn't even sure what I thought, as the credits rolled. I suppose it's a little less pointed than some of his other work, but I would argue that some of the best movies out there are as good as they are because they didn't "gel". We talked about The Master for a couple of hours after seeing it, analyzing every little moment, picking it all apart, trying to figure out the director's intentions behind the oblique parts. I don't see a lot of movies that challenge the viewer to do these things, and it makes me appreciate them more when I do.