Wednesday, September 26, 2012

In Theaters: THE MASTER (2012)

(US - 2012)

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Rami Malek, Kevin J. O'Connor, Madisen Beaty, Christopher Evan Welch. (R, 138 mins)

Don't look for any straightforward storytelling in THE MASTER, easily the most impenetrable and difficult work yet from Paul Thomas Anderson.  Drifting away from the kinetic, propulsive, last-third-of-Scorsese's GOODFELLAS-style structure of BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997) and MAGNOLIA (1999) and feeling colder and even more stand-offish than his most recent film, THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), THE MASTER is not something easily digested in one viewing or even five.  I'm not even sure if I like it, and that's never been a reaction I've had after seeing a Paul Thomas Anderson film (BOOGIE NIGHTS is probably my favorite film of the 1990s). There's a lot to admire in THE MASTER, but it's a film that never lets you in, and not in the way of needing everything explained to you.  It keeps you at a distance and really doesn't let you know entirely what's going on or what the stakes are or why some people behave the way they do. 

Joaquin Phoenix, in his first film since his I'M STILL HERE/"retiring from acting to become a rap star" prank/debacle that claimed James Gray's excellent TWO LOVERS as a casualty, stars as Freddie Quell, a disturbed WWII vet trying to adjust to postwar life.  He's belligerent, antisocial, drinks too much (making his own concoctions with distilled paint thinner), and seems to have an immature fixation on the female anatomy.  His unpredictable, often violent behavior gets him tossed from job after job, and by chance, he stows away on a boat that's hosting an extended wedding party for the daughter of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Dodd is a doctor, a philosopher, and the guru of a new religious belief known as The Cause (intended by Anderson to represent L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, though the film isn't specifically about the religion itself).  With nowhere else to go, and with Dodd enjoying his unusual beverage concoctions, Freddie becomes Dodd's de facto right-hand man in his quest to legitimize The Cause, even physically assaulting those who dare to question Dodd's teachings.  From then on, the film focuses on the relationship between Dodd--"The Master"--and Freddie, and there's any number of interpretations to draw from it.  Are they two sides of the same coin?  Have they met, either in this life or in another?  Is Freddie a spy who might turn on Dodd?  Is Freddie welcomed into the Dodd family much like Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler became part of the family of Burt Reynolds' Jack Horner in BOOGIE NIGHTS?  Is this all a complicated man-crush or is unrequited, or even forbidden love?

THE MASTER looks stunning, from the beautiful cinematography to the painstaking production design and period detail.  Hoffman is a commanding presence, and he's matched by Amy Adams as Dodd's devoted, controlling wife Peggy, who may be more in charge of The Cause than Dodd's devoted followers think. You've never seen Adams like this before, putting a disturbing spin on her inherent red-headed feistiness to where Peggy is either very brainwashed or she the one really calling the shots.  Is she jealous of Dodd's bond with Freddie?  Why does she tell him he can do whatever he wants as long as she or people they know don't find out about it?  And why does she do this while jerking Dodd off and calmly demanding "Come for me"? 

It's Phoenix who gets the film's most difficult and problematic role, and he too often succumbs to hamming it up and going overboard with the tics and mannerisms, but he has to keep up such a tortured intensity between Freddie's contorted stature and his weird body language that the actor looks like he's in constant physical pain.  It's a brave performance and an almost impossible role to play, and I'm still not sure whether my issues are with the character or with the way Phoenix is playing him.  But there's no denying how brilliant he is in his "sessions" with Hoffman's Dodd, or when Dodd makes Freddie go through an entire day of repetitively walking across a room and describing the wall and the window, or in one amazing scene of sustained, top-of-their-voice shouting from Phoenix and Hoffman as their characters argue in adjacent jail cells.

I'm still not sure what to make of THE MASTER.  On one hand, it's too original, bold, and inventive to dismiss, but on the other, it's the first time I've felt Anderson was being pompous and pretentious, and a "Slow Boat to China" serenade isn't quite "I drink your milkshake!"  In equal measures brilliant and overwrought, ambitious and aloof,  hypnotic and baffling, THE MASTER is like no other film you've ever seen (except maybe John Huston's long-buried 1946 documentary LET THERE BE LIGHT, from which Anderson quoted several lines of dialogue), which is what we've come to expect from Paul Thomas Anderson.  And like it or not, he's made the film he wanted to make.  I'm just not quite sure what he wanted.


  1. As always, excellent review, and one that mirrors my own opinion quite closely. I saw THE MASTER on Sunday, and feel like I'm still processing it. A second viewing is probably necessary, just to see if my current interpretations are real or imagined... but I don't know if I have the stamina to go through it again just yet.

  2. Thanks, Bruce. Yeah, I'm still mulling it over. I haven't exactly warmed up to it, but there's enough there that I'll see it again. Just not getting that same exhilirating feeling I got from every other PTA film before this.