Tuesday 6 November 2012

Review: The Master

Year: 2012
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Laura Dern

Synopsis is here:

To many, The Master is a difficult film to love or even like. The characters we meet are not ones we would want to be cornered by at a dinner party. We observe within the film, more than enough scenes of these people gatherings just to be sure. And yet, the film, even at its most obtuse and surreal, remains utterly compelling. If one thing is for sure, it shows again that Anderson is obsessed with trying to charm us with charlatans and fallen angels.

In The Master we are given Freddie Quell (A career best Phoenix), a man who would have been completely swallowed up by his surroundings, if not for his violent and drunken outbursts against them. The film's beginning, we find Freddie; simulate sex on a sand woman made on the beach. One could say he's literally fucking Mother Nature. Of course the question is why would you do that, if you weren't quite right?

Quell sticks out. Is he mentally ravaged by war? Has destroyed his faculties with those poisonous (made with paint thinner) brews of his? Did he spend too much time away from his sweetheart? We are never given solid grounding on his ailments and yet we are shown enough to show how damaged Quell has become since the war. A blanketed statement mentions early on that those returning from the war should be able to start small businesses and perform labour, in spite of what they may have seen. But what of those who have lost more than others? It's clear from Quell's posture alone that he is a misshapen man. The erratic episodes and outbursts we see only solidify our thoughts.

By chance, Quell meets the enigmatic Lancaster Todd, leader of "The Cause", a bizarre quasi religion based around a glut of peculiar principles and rituals that are never truly explained to us. Todd is a classic Anderson character; a father figure who promises atonement with words as sweet as syrup. No different from The Porn Mogul (Boogie Nights), or The Oil Man (There Will Be Blood), Todd is so wrapped up in his words, he believes he could sell brimstone to Satan. Todd decides to take Quell on board as a protégée, as clear testament, that the teachings and practices from his book can cure even the most distraught.

Hoffman plays Todd as smoke and mirrors personified. All darting eyes and false grins and much like Quell, he is quick to anger when tested. Although they meet by chance, there is a feeling of fatalism about the situation. We delve very little into his past and yet when he states that he's seen Freddie before, the empty spaces begin to fill in. It's interesting to observe how both Todd and his wife Peggy (an exemplary Amy Adams in full Lady Macbeth mode) look at alcohol. A small bathroom scene involving the Todds shows that despite the grand gestures, Lancaster is ruled by the same masters that rule many of us.

These are primal men ruled and controlled by their urges. While Todd tries to internalise and intellectualise his baser appetites, Quell spills his out on the floor like Freudian vomit. Together their fragments complete a damaged father-son relationship Anderson's films often feature. Quell seeks guidance, Todd wishes to be that superior leader that fathers may wishes to be, the raconteur at the family wedding, the all knowing and great auditor. And yet, the two of them being together, tugs at both of their frayed edges. Many scenes bind the stress in stifling close up. Mihai Malaimare's arresting cinematography and Jonny Greenwoods hypnotic score create a sense of unease that travels from scene to scene. Like a car crash, there's something so hauntingly beautiful about the ugliness of human behaviour is captured in the film, it's hard to turn away when the spinning tops clash.

Much has been said about the films references to Scientology, as well as how damning its statements are. While the film isn't a glistening expose of all things bad about the religion, I'm in no way shocked at the reaction of a certain practitioner of the faith. The Cause's processing appears very similar to auditing, while a tense sequence, involving Todd's son in law throwing Quell's personal problems (extracted from the process) back at him, illustrates the type of fears brought up by many when the mentioning of auditing arises. What makes these moments of the film so appealing to me is in how non-judgemental the film is towards the faith.  The film holds a mirror to the audiences’ thoughts of not only The Cause, but the self help/spiritual courses that The Cause picks from.

Does this all add up to a great film? To many, they will see nothing and the film is more basic that it leads on (certainly in its narrative form). The Master at times can appear as much of a muchness. Anderson's films of the past may have been more forceful in their eras and the film is so wrapped up with these people and their vulgarities, it feels sparse and at times distancing, while its main message doesn't feel as complex as suggested.

However in the opinion of this blogger, the film is a truly exciting work of craft. A character piece in which its mesmerizing visuals are punctuated by its blinding tension. The Master is a tale of damaged men searching for inner peace in all the wrong places. To wonder why it doesn't all "fit in" to a comfortable narrative space, almost mimics why the hunched and sick Quell does just "fit in" with all the rest of Middle America. The Master takes a while to state it's case, but Anderson's execution of material is absorbing throughout.