Thursday, September 27, 2012

"The Master"

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, and Rami Malek - Rated R

"If you figure out a way to live without a master, any master, be sure to let the rest of us know."

Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson has become one of my favorite filmmakers over the years.  Since I first watched Boogie Nights, I was hooked (it would be years before I watched his first feature, Hard Eight).  After Magnolia, I thought I had Anderson’s neo-Altman style figured out.  Then came Punch Drunk Love, which, admittedly, caught me off guard.  After a few viewings, I came to enjoy the film and accept Anderson’s true style.  His focus went from a collection of messed up characters to a singular view of one troubled man.  This style was perfected in There Will Be Blood, a movie that I consider to be among the best of all time.  Obviously, my expectations were catastrophic when I went in to see The Master.

I suppose the key question would be, “Is this better than There Will Be Blood?"  Some might think so, but I do not.  Blood left you with a lot to think about, but it was also extremely entertaining and absolutely engrossing…and it has Daniel Day-Lewis.  The Master has its moments, but as entertainment, it leaves a bit to be desired.  And it is certainly a more challenging film.  This is the type of movie that will leave nearly everyone with their own personal interpretation of the film.  I actually love movies like that, but when you stack that up against There Will Be Blood, I have to go with the latter. 

The Master is extremely intriguing, though.  I found myself very involved in the film.  It’s a difficult film to figure out, but that’s the fun part of it.  The weirdness and absurdity of it all make it worth watching.  From the strange concoctions the main character makes to the childish arguments between the two leads, I found myself disgusted and perplexed, but I also found myself laughing.  This is intentional laughter, mind you.  Joaquin Phoenix told Time that he sees the film as a comedy.  I agree to a point.  I would like to hear someone argue that the jail cell scene was not meant to elicit a few laughs, because that scene cracked me up.  So there is entertainment, it’s just a bit unexpected. 

The themes of the film lead to a bit more intellectual satisfaction.  Since the film is loosely based on Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, there’s a lot to go into down that road (though I think that’s the easy way out).  The bigger questions are about who or what exactly the titular master is.  Is it religion in general, conscience, women, sexuality, addiction, insanity?  The list could go on.  I don’t want to posit theories, necessarily, because I like the idea that the film could be about any of these things and then some.  Some would call that a kitchen sink approach, but it made the film infinitely fascinating to me. 

The other theory floating around out there is that Anderson is the master, and he is just playing a trick on all of us by throwing us a confusing movie with no point.  And supposedly he’s laughing at all of us internet movie nerds as we try to decipher the indecipherable.  There’s nothing wrong with that scenario, really.  In fact, I quite like the idea of Anderson laughing maniacally as he scans the IMDb message boards.  I just don’t buy it.  To each his own and all, but I think there’s a point to this movie.  Also, how could Anderson allow Joaquin Phoenix to give the performance of his career for nothing?  Not to mention Philip Seymour Hoffman’s work, or Amy Adams’s. 

The acting is an aspect of the movie that most can agree on, even if they hate the film.  Phoenix, coming off his strange (and hilarious) performance art piece I’m Still Here, is absolutely disturbing, in the best possible definition of the word, as WWII vet Freddie Quell.  It’s an award-worthy performance, and not just because he gets to hit stuff and yell a lot.  Everything, from his twisted facial expressions to his strange posture, emits a troubled soul.  It is honestly one of those performances in which you forget that you’re watching an actor; I can’t think of higher praise than that. 

Hoffman, as Lancaster Dodd, does a great job as always, of course.  He is remarkably believable as the leader of this cult/religion/movement.  It’s also great to see Hoffman team up with Anderson again after a one film hiatus.  He is outshined a bit by Phoenix, but watching these two work together is great.  Their more heated interactions were easily my favorite moments from the film. 

The supporting players do fine work, as well, most notably Amy Adams.  She is the quiet undercurrent of the film, and she deserves a lot of focus, both as a character and an actress.  I also enjoyed Rami Malek’s nervous performance and Jessie Plemons as Hoffman’s son (can you say, “perfect casting”?) made for some interesting scenes, not to mention he has the line that fuels the “Anderson is just messing with us” theory: “He’s just making it all up as he goes along.” 

The other aspect of the film that most can agree on is the fact that it is beautiful.  While this film doesn’t lend itself to grand visuals as often as Blood does, there are still some amazing shots.  In fact, the film is meant to be projected in 70MM, although I didn’t have the chance to see it in that format (not a lot of art house screenings in southern Indiana).  The point is this is certainly a visual film.  I found the images of Phoenix as a sailor at the beginning of the film to contain the most lasting imagery, but the camerawork is effective throughout. 

Another welcome element is the music of Johnny Greenwood for the score.  The work here is not as ambitious as his previous work on Blood, but it is just as effective.  When there’s a tense scene going on, Greenwood’s score definitely amps it up nearly to the point of physical discomfort.  That is a good thing, by the way. 

All of these things come together to make a very effective Paul Thomas Anderson film.  I didn’t “like” it more than There Will Be Blood, but I found myself thinking about The Master and the themes therein much more than I did after watching Blood.  When I walked out of the theater after seeing Blood, I was thinking mainly about how awesome I thought it was.  When I walked out after this film, I found myself contemplating every aspect of it.  Was I as entertained?  No.  But the film has really stuck with me.  I won’t say that this is a film that must be watched multiple times to “get it,” but I cannot wait to watch it again so I can see which theories match up.  I might even come away with something new entirely the next time I watch it.  If that’s Paul Thomas Anderson just messing with me, I’ll take it. 

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)

I left with the impression that sexuality is the true master of the characters.  There's the hinted at homosexual attraction between Dodd and Quell, mainly on the part of Dodd, who has to be *ahem* released of his desires by his wife at one point.  That leads to the power Dodd's wife, Peggy, holds over nearly everyone.  And what about that scene in which Quell sees her eyes turn colors?  Finally, what led me to this conclusion was the bookend images of Quell with the sand lady.  Despite his journey, he is still a slave to his sexual desires.  But that's just me.

How messed up are all of those drinks he makes?  Someone in my audience actually blurted out, "Oh no!" after he took a drink of one of them. 

That childish back and forth in the jail cell is fantastic.  It was so great to see Lancaster Dodd, this man of answers, be reduced to yelling, "No one likes you but me!" 

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