Saturday, October 6, 2012

Review - The Master

It's been five years since I sat in a darkened theatre puzzling over the cinematic output of Paul Thomas Anderson. It was the peculiar final scene of his celebrated opus There Will Be Blood, which now lives in simultaneous reverence and infamy for its uber-quotable “milkshake” line and the ongoing debate it inspires between “genius!” and “hackery!”. I'll admit the bewilderment was initially off-putting, but there was a fascinating quality to what I had just seen that held my gaze even though I didn't understand it. Such a sensation lingers over the entirety of his latest picture The Master, a spellbinding head-scratcher which has been impressing critics and confounding audiences everywhere.
We first meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) stationed in the Pacific during the closing days of WWII, indulging in all of his most basic animal instincts, from banal activities like eating and sleeping to more masturbatory and aggressive releases. Upon returning home, he struggles with his readjustment to civilian life, hopping from place to place, his unpredictable and violent nature being an unsuitable fit for polite society. It isn't until he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic preacher of his own spiritual philosophical science called The Cause, that Freddie seems to find some direction and meaning. The high-minded Dodd also sees in Freddie a challenge finally worthy of his perceived expertise; an person he can liberate from animalistic vices and refine as an “enlightened” man.

From then on, the movie becomes a subtextual chess match between animal and man. As hard as Freddie tries to absorb his master's education, his animal reflexes prove difficult to escape. At the same time, they also seem to rub off on Dodd himself, to the chagrin of his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), who is even more coldly committed to The Cause than he is. In the end, it's hard to say whether animal or man comes out on top within an individual. Anderson seems to suggest that the two must simply part ways and coexist separately from each other.

Or, it could be the movie is about something else entirely.

That seems to be the only unanimous reaction to The Master: What the hell is it about? While the intentional ambiguities of Anderson's loose narrative inspire broad interpretation and intriguing debate, many of the story elements here are equally frustrating for their open-endedness and at times non sequitur randomness. At the same time, there's something intrinsically entrancing about this mystic movie. Anderson is certainly a master in his own right when it comes to hypnotic style. His highly selective editing allows us rarely interrupted observation of the performances on display, and indeed, they are the film's most magnetic assets. The dichotomy we see in Phoenix and Hoffman's yin and yang is a masculine ballet of words and action, one which will probably earn both Academy Award nominations. The muted production and costume design evokes postwar America without distracting from the characters, and Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s much touted 70mm photography is a mesmerizing vehicle for Anderson's frequent long takes, with its dramatic focus pulls and glossy choreography. Johnny Greenwood's score wavers with the enticing dissonance of an orchestra tuning its instruments.

Needless to say, it's a film worthy of a second look. Perhaps the insight afforded by time and repeat viewings will illuminate the film's more enigmatic aspects. Or perhaps it won't. Either way, it's still a beautifully baffling mystery.

***1/2 out of ****


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Might I ask why audiences would be baffled by the movie?

    1. Because of its relative inaccessibility and opaque themes. It's just a difficult movie to get a read on.