is watching a film or two
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: outside the wall
Two fantastic reviews of the film with links to the review of the blu-ray. Apparently the transfer is godly.
Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, The Master, arrives on Blu-ray bearing three Oscar nominations and a shelf of critics' awards, but it's just as likely to divide viewers as Magnolia (1999), the most controversial of Anderson's previous works. Though lacking the earlier film's punishing length and dense plot, The Master demands just as much effort from viewers—maybe more. On the surface, The Master tells a simple story of two outsiders who share a mysterious connection, but the story always seems to be moving sideways, with neither of the main characters ever coming into clear focus. The more we learn about each of them, the more elusive they become. By the end of the film, one would be hard-pressed to say that either man has completed what, in movie parlance, would be called a character's "journey", and yet one senses intuitively that something has happened. You walk out of the theater (or media room) searching for words to describe just what that something is.
Anderson has been pushing the narrative boundaries of conventional filmmaking for a long time now, experimenting with how stories can be told, even questioning the very nature of what a cinematic story can be. Boogie Nights and Magnolia fractured traditional dramatic structure into a series of interconnected mini-dramas. Punch-Drunk Love attempted to reinvent romantic comedy by flipping every traditional element upside down (including using Adam Sandler's familiar man-child as the romantic lead). There Will Be Blood appeared to tell a story of the early days of oil drilling but gradually revealed itself to be about a soul's damnation, as foreshadowed in the title and the multiple meanings of the film's final line ("I'm finished").
The Master is Anderson's boldest experiment yet with narrative form, because it kicks away much of the familiar scaffolding we use to keep our footing in a story, while at the same time commanding our attention with entrancing images, hypnotic sound and enthralling performances. Themes, connections and emotions multiply on subsequent viewings. The Master is a film that will be slowly discovered and assimilated over time. I've seen it twice, and I already want to see it again. But it only takes one viewing to recognize that Anderson has created something remarkable.
The central character of The Master is a World War II Navy veteran named Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who may or may not be suffering from shell shock, or what we now call "PTSD", after fighting on the Pacific front. We see Freddie receiving treatment in a military hospital, along with other veterans, but as details of his life before the war emerge during the course of the film, it becomes evident that Freddie was already badly damaged before he joined the Navy. It's possible, even likely, that the war simply enlarged the fractures that life had already cracked into his character.
What we quickly learn about Freddie is that he drinks indiscriminately, including home brews made with petroleum products; is obsessed with sex; and has what would today be called anger management issues that make him prone to sudden violent outbursts and physical confrontations. After the war, he's unable to hold down a steady job.
One night, while working as a field hand on a Northern California farm, Freddie flees an altercation with fellow workers and, by chance hops onto a yacht departing San Francisco Bay. The temporary captain is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic and evasive purveyor of a therapy-cum-philosophy dubbed "The Cause". Freddie initially laughs at Dodd's pronouncements, as he laughs at most things that make him uncomfortable, but he is gradually drawn into Dodd's world on the long voyage to New York City, the home of the yacht's owner, a wealthy society lady who supports Dodd.
As Freddie accompanies Dodd on his travels promoting and developing The Cause, the two men strike up a unique relationship that, at first, Dodd's fiercely protective wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), finds encouraging. After their first meeting, she tells Freddie that he's inspired Dodd, but before long she's become distrustful of Freddie's drinking, for which her husband shares a taste, and of his sexual proclivities, which Peggy somehow seems to sense and, with the unerring instinct of a long-time spouse, identifies in her husband as well. In one of the film's many surreal sequences, Freddie watches Dodd sing to a group of his followers, and in Freddie's imagination, every woman in the group becomes a sex object (I'm being deliberately vague for those who have not yet seen the film). But in the next scene, Peggy punishes Dodd for Freddie's thoughts, as if she knew exactly what was in his mind and blamed her husband for sharing it (or perhaps inciting it).
Even though The Master depicts much of Dodd's home-baked philosophy and contains many scenes of his treatment method known as "processing", the film isn't really about The Cause (which Anderson avowedly modeled on Scientology). Nor is it about Freddie's voyage of self-discovery, because Freddie has no desire to know himself. Rather, the film is about the mysterious, charged connection between these two men that neither of them can quite explain, but that keeps yanking them back into each other's orbit. Throughout the film, Dodd repeatedly tells Freddie he's sure they've met. At first, it seems like a harmless trick to establish rapport, but when Dodd eventually "remembers" their meeting, you're not sure what to make of it. By then, there have been so many cues—thematic, verbal, visual—establishing Freddie and Dodd as kindred spirits that they could almost be aspects of the same person.
When they first meet, Freddie asks Dodd what he does, but Dodd answers a different question. He says what he is. After listing a number of occupations, he says: "But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man. Just like you." Even if one treats this as merely a con man's patter, their positions are almost immediately reversed, when Dodd reveals his affinity for Freddie's home brew and asks what's in it. "Secrets", says Freddie, with a grin, perhaps sensing that no other answer is better calculated to intrigue Dodd. Now it's Freddie who's conning Dodd, since his rot gut is nothing more than a mixture of whatever whiskeys are available, plus paint thinner. Dodd wants more, and Freddie is only too happy to oblige, because it guarantees him food and lodging. Who's conning whom?
And so things go, as Freddie moves in Dodd's world but retains his outsider's perspective. He does Dodd's exercises, but takes them no more seriously than the VA's Rorshack tests. At some level, he knows, like Dodd's son, Val (Jesse Plemons), that Dodd is making it up as he goes along, but he doesn't care. When Dodd is criticized by a skeptic, John More (Christopher Evan Welch), or his latest book is dismissed as nonsense by his publisher (Kevin Anderson), or Dodd is arrested on a warrant sworn out by a wealthy contributor who has had second thoughts, Freddie leaps to his defense, violently so. Freddie may be skeptical of Dodd, but he won't tolerate disloyalty in anyone else. Nothing angers him quicker.
In this, too, he is matched by Dodd, whose temper is equally intense, though somewhat better controlled, when he is challenged by anyone—including Freddie. In a remarkable scene midway through the film, the two men are placed in adjoining jail cells, Dodd on the warrant and Freddie for interfering with the police. Freddie arrives already at gale force from battling the officers who subdued him, and it takes Dodd a while to rev up to his level. But Freddie keeps provoking him, and eventually the two men are standing on opposite sides of their prison bars, face to face, yelling at each other at full volume. What has become of The Cause now?
Anderson has always been deliberate in his choices of words, and it can't be an accident that he gave Dodd's organization an ambiguous name that can refer to a movement or a crusade but also to a basis, source or origin. Dodd's processing is intended to identify the "cause" of people's present-day problems in past experiences and "free" them from the hold of the past. More than anyone else, it is Freddie who challenges Dodd's method by stubbornly refusing to be molded by Dodd's processing. Even after he has revisited his past traumas, Freddie remains who and what he is, which is no doubt why Dodd finds it so hard to let Freddie go. Though they are separated at the end of the film (obviously at Peggy's insistence), can one really be certain that the separation is permanent? Freddie once walked away from Dodd, and all it took was a phone call to bring them back together. Who can say when circumstances may once again cause the negative and the positive to collide (to borrow one of Dodd's facile phrases)?
Somewhere across the Pacific Ocean, a rowdy crew of Navy sailors overtakes a shoreline. They let off steam, fight each other, smoke, drink, and even forge a makeshift woman from the coastal terrain to satiate their lustful desires. It's here where we find our protagonist resting -- his head softly nestled against a sandy bosom, perfectly at ease and content. Setting the mood and thematic backbone for what follows, this gently vulgar image goes on to construct the very core of director Paul Thomas Anderson's deceptively ponderous excursion into motion picture ambiguity. A challenging, dense, and deliberately vague examination of human conditioning, 'The Master' is both implicitly unknowable and perhaps surprisingly straightforward -- cementing itself as one of the year's most divisive releases.
After returning home from his tour of duty, a traumatized WWII veteran, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), struggles to readjust to civilian life. When he meets the enigmatic spiritual leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he suddenly finds himself in the midst of a developing cult. As the mysterious guru takes a liking to Freddie, the troubled former sailor tries to open up to the movement's philosophies -- which include the existence of past lives and subconscious time travel. Though Dodd is determined to heal the disturbed man of his primitive impulses and emotional pain, it's implied that Freddie may already be devoted to another master altogether.
Early talk of the film's developing script made much of the story's potentially controversial parallels to Scientology. While L. Ron Hubbard is the clear inspiration for Hoffman's character, the resulting narrative is actually pretty far removed from what those initial rumblings implied. Though still integral to the movie's plot and themes, the film really isn't about the cult. Instead, this is largely Freddie's story, and through his journey, Anderson seeks to examine humanity's dueling nature, the weighty distress of combat trauma, and the difficult sustainability of internal change.
Are we more than mere animalistic impulses? Can a man alter his very essence? And if he can, should he? More heady concepts dealing with cult mentality, psychological manipulation, and war-time PTSD add even more thematic fuel to the fire, and a potent undercurrent of crass sexuality invades many of these underlining themes, serving as an ever-present reminder of the protagonist's carnal preoccupation. While all these competing ideas can sometimes feel disconnected and removed from one another, the script's loosely associated thoughts do eventually come to a strangely fitting conclusion. Whether or not the various shifting patterns actually fit together in a meaningful way, or merely meander into shallow pretension, is certainly up to interpretation, but I lean toward the former rather than the latter. More of an atypical character study than anything else, the answers to the film's mysteries might ultimately lie within the shattered psyche of its central figure.
Physically and emotionally fractured, Freddie Quell is one of contemporary cinema's most singular creations, and Joaquin Phoenix completely disappears into the character. Creepy yet utterly pathetic, the man is like a wounded animal, crooked and misshapen inside and out. Constantly hunched over and squinting, it's like he's literally struggling to hold himself together, tightly contorting his body for fear that it will all simply crumble away. Though he's clearly a product of war-ravaged suffering, one is left questioning if this veteran was ever really normal to begin with. Phoenix is nearly unrecognizable in the part, and his slurred speech, unpredictable behavior, and broken demeanor, are truly painful to watch. A slave to all of man's baser instincts, Freddie is an alcoholic, a thief, and a sex-obsessed pervert frequently prone to nervous laughter, immature quirks, and primal fits of violence. He's an attack dog, ready to rip apart or hump the nearest leg, an unloved stray rabid yet fiercely loyal to his master -- but who, or what, will ultimately fill those shoes?
One possible answer lies in the mysterious and charismatic Lancaster Dodd. A self-proclaimed writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher and "hopelessly inquisitive man," Dodd is a thoroughly inscrutable figure. The leader of a cult-like spiritual and "scientific" movement known as The Cause, the character has clear delusions of grandeur. He talks a lot, spewing oblique philosophical ramblings, but never actually says anything. A skilled manipulator and likely fraud, it remains unclear if Dodd is merely a lying opportunist, or if he actually believes his own bullshit. Hoffman plays the role brilliantly, and brings a carefully mannered performance to the screen. His speech patterns are all perfectly attuned to the character's playfully formal diction, and there is an inherently comical, nearly absurdist aspect to the man that lurks just beneath the surface.
Together, both actors form a truly captivating contrast, and in many ways, Freddie presents Dodd with the ultimate challenge. A prototypical example of humanity's primitive desires, the troubled veteran is, in the leader's own words, a "naughty boy," a "rascal," and a "scoundrel." He's everything The Cause seeks to elevate. Lost and without direction, the character becomes the perfect guinea pig, and Dodd fully takes advantage of his susceptibility. With that said, their relationship proves to be far more complex than that, and the dueling ambiguity of their unlikely pairing becomes one of the film's most fascinating components. Indeed, whether his methods are sincere or complete nonsense, Dodd seems to deeply care for Freddie, and despite his constant regressions, Freddie seems to actually want to be "healed." This leads to some of the film's most provocative sequences, chronicling the Master's attempts to retrain the war-torn brute into a civilized, spiritual being.
These endeavors take on the guise of "processing," which involves Dodd asking Freddie a series of questions over and over again. The procedure aims to systematically wear the man down, emotionally beating him into giving the desired responses before finally instigating a mental journey into the past. In other words, it's like a form of verbal torture combined with thinly veiled hypnosis. Later, Freddie is subjected to even more psychological testing, as he's put through a series of excruciating and seemingly pointless mental and emotional exercises designed to… well, I'm not completely sure. You'd have to ask Lancaster Dodd that, but I wouldn't expect a cohesive answer. Throughout it all, Phoenix and Hoffman share an otherworldly on-screen chemistry, cementing their inexplicable kinship as something real, tangible, and utterly engaging. Perhaps, as their fictional characters speculate of themselves, the two performers already knew each other in another life.
Taking his cue from the great Stanley Kubrick, director Paul Thomas Anderson layers the film with a slow, contemplative style marked by formalistic symmetry and thoughtful compositions. The framing is often impeccably balanced yet still slightly askew, evoking the characters' tilted internal perceptions. Bold, faintly disorienting images all imply deeper moods and meanings, filling the screen with a hypnotically absorbing mise-en-scene. Long, extended takes with free flowing camera movements are common, sustaining the film's uncomfortable, gradual escalation of tension while forming an ethereal extension of time. Jonny Greenwood's unsettling score also bolsters the movie's tempo, enhancing the film's faintly off-kilter rhythm. As quietly arresting as Anderson's aesthetic is, the director also knows when to simply let his actors act, and there are key instances where unobtrusive stationary shots and purely functional cuts are employed, allowing the leads' peerless performances to take center stage.
When I first saw 'The Master' in theaters, my initial reaction was one of restrained admiration. While I found the cinematography and performances to be exceptional, I felt that the script was underwhelming, muddled, and fundamentally without purpose. I recognized and applauded the cinematic depth of Anderson's work, but was left cold by what I perceived to be an uncertainty of vision. In many ways, the screenplay seemed unfinished, like the director needed to go through one more draft to flesh out and connect its disparate themes and plotlines. If I were asked to rate the film then, I would have probably given it a solid 3.5.
Now that I've had the opportunity to see the picture for a second time, my appreciation for the film has grown considerably. Elements that once seemed overly ponderous, extraneous, or oblique, now carry greater clarity, and the many lingering layers of ambiguity now seem genuinely intriguing rather than merely pretentious and unfocused. The film presents itself as a thematic enigma, keeping the audience at a slight emotional and intellectual distance, but this complexity is potentially deceptive. Dressing up a subversively low brow undercurrent through high art style, Anderson's true intentions might actually be much more accessible and transparent than they at first seem. At least, that's my current conclusion, but the film's infinitely dense material lends itself to endless interpretations, making it an experience ripe for further repeat viewings
Though deliberately anticlimactic, the movie's final scenes are extremely telling, ostensibly revealing the ultimate altar to which Freddie Quell is seemingly enslaved. Perhaps it's true then, that we all have a master to answer to, and whether through innate compulsion, lingering trauma, or deliberate choice, Freddie finally accepts his. At the end of the day, beneath all its art house grandstanding, weighty intellectual content, and impenetrable form, 'The Master' really might be nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of a well told dirty joke. Only, I'm not so sure that there's a punch line.