THE MASTER (2012) – The Review
THE MASTER has been generating a steady buzz in cinemas circles for the past few months for several reasons. For one thing, it’s writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth film, his first in nearly five years ( 2007′s THERE WILL BE BLOOD ). It’s also Joaquin Phoenix’s first fiction film in four years ( 2008′s TWO LOVERS before his ” performance art ” documentary I’M STILL HERE ). The hard-core movie tech fans are interested because Anderson shot the film in 70 mm, the format of cinema spectacles like 1959′s BEN HUR. But the biggest question floating about the flick is whether it’s about the controversial founder of Scientology. This after Anderson directed the world’s most famous Scientologist, Tom Cruise, in MAGNOLIA ( earning Cruise a supporting actor Oscar nomination in his best screen performance ). Well, the film is now out. Audiences will be able to see if THE MASTER is a scathing expose. That will be the subject of much discussion ( and litigation, perhaps ). Hopefully this will not overshadow Anderson’s compelling script and directing skill along with the superb work from all the actors involved. These thespians along with the film maker will be recognized in the year-end film lists and award season.
Although the film’s title is THE MASTER, it really focuses on the journey of WWII vet Freddie Quell ( Phoenix ). An erratic, troubled alcoholic, Quell spends his last days as a sailor in the psychiatric ward. The Navy doctors and counselors do their best, but are ill equipped to help this damaged man ( this was before treatments for PTS, post traumatic stress, were created ). Quell is released from the service and fails to hold down a job ( family photographer, migrant worker ). Coming off a bender, he is drawn to a yacht hosting a party for some rich ” swells”. He sneaks aboard and eventually meets the ship’s captain, Lancaster Dodd ( Philip Seymour Hoffman ). Dodd is impressed with Quell’s mixology talents ( he can make ” hootch ” out of anything ) and permits the drifter to stay. On the boat are Dodd’s family and believers in the spiritual movement he presented in his book ” The Cause” ( the followers address him as ” master ” ). Over the next few years ( into the early 1950′s ) Quell travels with the Dodd family as strong-arm enforcer ( got to squelch those skeptics ) and experimental subject for treatments outlined in ” the Cause ” as they spread the master’s teachings.
This fairly simple story is brought to vivid life by an extremely gifted cast. We should start with the master himself. Hoffman’s been in all of Anderson’s films except for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Here he deftly handles the many facets of Dodd : huckster, salesman, philosopher, intellectual, mischievous child, and flawed man. For the believers and wealthy sponsors, he’s the calm truth-seeker ( until he’s challenged when Dodd unleashes his rage ). And then there’s that taste for the grape. He’s able to keep his appetites ( and growing ego) in check for the most part. Somehow Quell melts his heart. When his family stages an intervention to get Dodd to cast Quell out, the master will not budge. Freddie’s more than a project, he’s Dodd’s ideal son. The real male heir, Val, doesn’t have a passion for ” The Cause “. He seems to be there for the ride and , hopefully, the big pay-off. There’s a few moments when Dodd’s affection alarms the group ( particularly an impromptu wrestling match on the lawn of a rich sponsor ). Most alarmed may be Dodd’s pitbull of a wife Peggy, played with steely determination by Amy Adams. The pregnant Peggy believes that Quell takes away from Lancaster’s focus. Peggy often seems more fervent on spreading Cause beliefs than her hubby. She also is much more protective. At a party where Lancaster is debated by a skeptic you can almost see 3D daggers projecting from her wide eyes at the questioner. Later she lays it all out, ” No defending! Attack! Attack! “. This is surprisingly strong work from Adams, whose talents have been squandered in too many frothy ” rom-coms “. I expect both performances will be rewarded with supporting actor nominations.
But as I stated earlier, this is Freddie Quell’s story and it may be the role of Phoenix’s impressive screen career. Quell is a loose cannon, a live wire in that 40′s jargon. He’s also a wounded man-boy who tries to dull his pain with gallons of booze and casual sex. His twisted psyche manifests itself physically in his tightened facial features and stilted, stiff body language. Often his rage explodes in messy, violent acts ( many in defense of his master ). Phoenix somehow makes this furious, frustrated stunted child sympathetic. We really hope that his new family can fix him, or at least calm him down. He’s heartbreaking, riveting, and unforgettable. Certainly Freddie can take a place next to Daniel Plainview and Dirk Diggler in Anderson’s list of flawed heroes. If the Academy can find five more compelling actors this year, I will be very pleasantly surprised.
Anderson’s 70 mm decision pays off handsomely in several memorable sequences. A montage of people posing for Freddie at a department store photography salon is incredibly striking, capturing the artificial formality of those old heirlooms. The opening scenes of Freddie and his sailor pals cavorting on a Pacific beach seems to sparkle as do the shots of the churning ocean behind their ship. It also helps the more intimate moments as when Lancaster ” processes ” Freddie ( processing is an intensive interview with certain questions rapidly repeated ). And it heightens the claustrophobia when Freddie must perform a ‘blind’ exercise for hours on end. Special kudos to the all the artists that recreated the post-war years, from the wardrobe, hairstyles, and sets. Everything looks spot on. Anderson keeps this sprawling story under control making it seem much shorter than its 137 minutes. He only falters during a confusing final act. It’s not really clear what is real or imagined in those last few minutes. I don’t want to harp on that since everything up til then is so well done. So, is it about the S. movement? Well, from what I’ve researched , there are many, many striking similarities. There’s no space aliens and volcanos that TV’s ” South Park” so hilariously skewered several years ago ( those ideas didn’t arrive till well into the 60′s ), but many other concepts are represented in the film. Hopefully moviegoers won’t be going in for a ” blow the lid off” expose’. What they can look forward to is an exceptionally well made drama with compelling characters brought to memorable life by a group of exceptional actors directed by one of the most gifted film makers working today.
4.5 Out of 5 Stars