Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Movie Review: The Master (2012)

The Master movie poster
The Master (2012) - Written and Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams.

By Jason McDonald

The Master is a good movie. I might as well go ahead and get that out of the way just in case you begin to the think otherwise. I waited for the DVD release to see it, which means many of my friends had already watched it, and there was already a plethora of reviews to scour through. So after watching the movie I did just that. The Rotten Tomatoes meter currently sits at 86% with 187 “fresh” reviews and 31 “rotten” reviews. Is it a fair scale in which to judge a movie? Maybe, maybe not, but 187 good reviews versus 31 bad ones had to say something about the quality of the movie, right?

Apparently the movie is mysterious, or “seductively enigmatic” as described by Rolling Stones’ writer, Peter Travers. Travers' writes that “Anderson refuses to do the thinking for you. His films mess with your head until you take them in and take them on. No wonder Anderson infuriates lazy audiences.”

This would be pretentiousness. The Master isn’t totally mysterious and it doesn’t really mess with your head. If anything, the reviews mess with your head. The irony to the many critics proclaiming the mysteriousness of The Master is that they are inadvertently buying into a facade or an essence that conveys something that isn’t really there at all. This is oddly enough, the same gimmick used by The Cause, the cult in movie modeled on Scientology.

The restless aggression of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is the driving force behind the movie. It opens with Freddie in the Navy, sitting on a beach waiting for the war to end. He sits by himself and hacks coconuts while other sailors bond. His bonding moment with other sailors comes via his talent of being something of an alcohol chemist, manufacturing hooch from various ingredients (including…paint thinner) that he can get his hands on. This becomes his way of relating.

We don’t know what Freddie endured during the war, but we can draw a few conclusions based on his antisocial behavior, his stooped painful mannerisms, and the fact that nearly every word that comes out of his mouth is coming from clenched teeth. He has a practice in avoidance when talking to a psychiatrist and he takes part in group lecture about how a his mental state will be questioned when he tries to make his way into civilian life, and that many people just won’t be able to relate with what he’s been through. We later see this come to fruition when his job as a department store photographer comes to a fantastic and violent end.

After stowing-away aboard a yacht, Freddie meets Lancaster Dodd played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Late Quartet), or The Master. Dodd is charming, smart, and a father figure to all of his followers, or at least that’s what he strives to convey. “I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you,” Dodd says to Freddie. He and Freddie have an instant bond built on very specific need for each other.

The root of The Cause, Dodd’s religion, is exploring your past lives and overcoming flaws that may have occurred in these past lives, to cleanse the soul. The followers listen to recorded sermons of Dodd advising that humans are not animals. We are above animals. In this vein of thinking, Freddie becomes a project for Dodd because he gives in to all of his animal instincts. He asks girls outright if they would like to have sex with him, he starts fights, and he’s an alcoholic. But so is Dodd. Dodd has violent outbursts, leads drunken nude parties, swindles people, and is also an alcoholic. It’s these weaknesses that tie Dodd and Freddie together.

Freddie tags along as Dodd’s personal assistant while The Cause travels to various states in an attempt to spread the message and to promote Dodd’s second upcoming revelatory book. Dodd’s methods are strange and repetitive. He asks the same aimless questions over and over, and if the subject blinks, they have to start over. His ultimate test for Freddie is for him to pace back and forth in a room, to touch a window and back to the other side of the room to touch the wall. This is supposed to happen over the course of a day, and we feel every moment of the monotonous Sisyphus-like therapy. This is representative of The Cause. There isn’t really much to it, and I’m not sure Anderson could have illustrated the nothingness any better.

The Master really could have been about Skinheads, the Ku Klux Klan, or any other organizations that draws members for the same reason a cult does. It’s less about content than it is about acceptance and relationships. During flashbacks to the Navy, we see Freddie strongly embracing a giant sand sculpted nude woman on a beach. It would be comical if it weren’t so sad. Freddie’s need for companionship and the need to belong is filled by The Cause and Dodd’s friendship, and Dodd’s need for adoration, respect, and the need for a project is filled by Freddie. It’s a mountain of a movie with many layers to explore, but the story and the character’s motivations are fairly simple. At the core of it, it’s about the need to be needed.

The Master may not be Anderson's (Inherent Vice) best work, but that hardly matters considering his worst work towers over most other director’s best efforts. The directing is good, the acting is good, Joaquin Phoenix (Her) is fantastic, but I’m sure you’ve heard it all before. If you haven’t seen it, then see it. If you don’t plan on seeing, then you can stop reading right...now.

Rating: ***

No comments:

Post a Comment