Mark Reviews Movies

The Master (2012)


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Ambyr Childers, Jesse Plemons, Martin Drew, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Amy Ferguson

MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity and language)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 9/14/12 (limited); 9/21/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 13, 2012

It is impossible to ignore or deny that The Master, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson's story of a writer who creates a new way of looking at one's life and the writer's most loyal devotee, is inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and his post-war self-help program, which eventually transformed into the Church of Scientology. The similarities are numerous but only worth a passing mention. Anderson does not want to dissect Hubbard's teachings; the only reason for having a fictional stand-in for a real-life figure is as a recognizable entryway into this most unique story of obsession, fealty, and how—left unexamined—the two can rip apart a man's soul.

The Master is about that intangible quality of individuality, the desire to be one's own man—to be free. Whether or not such a thing is even possible is the film's central quandary.

For here, at the film's center, is a man who by all appearances is free to do whatever he likes whenever he wants. He's rebellious to the core, or at least he imagines himself to be. It is not so much a paradox that he is prone to attaching himself to organizations that eliminate individuality as it is the true nature of his being. This is a man who cannot stand to be himself.

At the other end of the spectrum is the man who takes that lost soul under his wing. This man is entirely about routines and structures; he embraces the concept of institution and community that the other man works so hard to reject (or, again, only pretends to reject).

The film is a character study elevated to devastating heights by two, towering central performances from Joaquin Phoenix as the student and Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eponymous master. Maybe it is the other way around, though. Anderson and the actor's considerable accomplishment in the development of these characters lies in their mystery. We know almost nothing about their respective histories but, through their codependent relationship (The irony that such an unhealthy bond is formed out of an ambition to uncover the secrets of mental health is inescapable), come to learn practically everything of significance about them, save for perhaps the most important question: Which of them needs the other more?

Freddie Quell (Phoenix) certainly needs help. The film opens with him serving in the Navy in the Pacific soon before the end of the Second World War. While on shore leave, he and some of his shipmates form a naked woman out of sand on the beach. In jest, they begin to pantomime having sex with the figure, but Freddie is impelled to take it a step further, running off from the rest of the group to masturbate. Later in the film, Anderson breaks to a subjective view from Freddie's perspective, in which he imagines every woman in the room completely naked. The point is unmistakable: This is torment for him.

After the war, Freddie spends some time in a veterans' hospital for what is clearly posttraumatic stress disorder, and when he goes out into the world to work, he has one disastrous experience after another, from assaulting a customer at the department store where he works as a photographer (after his attempts to seduce a pretty live model fall flat) to being accused of poisoning a migrant worker on a farm after the man has too much of Freddie's potent moonshine.

Ansderson presents this section, along with an interlude in which Freddie recalls the only girl he truly loved, in a narrative haze—a dreamy to-and-fro collection of events that mirrors Freddie's own aimless drifting. When he meets Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman) after stowing away on the boat where the writer-cum-philosopher is holding his daughter's (Ambyr Childers) wedding, the film's shape becomes more rigid. It must, as Dodd is now in control of events.

He has created a program called "The Cause," which is a mixture of pop psychology and hypnosis, with Dodd hinting at some deeper truth about the origin of human beings' existence on Earth. He has few but very devout followers, and after seeing Freddie in action—drinking, hitting on every woman with whom he comes into contact, and otherwise causing a scene—Dodd decides to make the man his pet project. We think "pet" because, in berating Freddie during their first "processing" session (an interview to determine someone's personality), Dodd calls him a "silly animal." Also, Freddie is as loyal as a puppy to Dodd (They roll around on the ground together after a reunion) and as ferocious as a rabid dog when protecting his master (Those who would criticize the man in front of Freddie do so at their own peril). This is, of course, a kind of transference—Freddie's fixation on sex is replaced or, at least, overshadowed by an addiction to Dodd.

Dodd is poised and sturdy, only displaying an emotional rise when someone dares to openly doubt his ideas. Freddie is impulsive and prone to violence. At the start of his first "processing," the camera struggles to keep Freddie in focus in close-up as his head wavers back and forth. A two-shot of duo in in separate jail cells offers a perfect juxtaposition of the behavior of each; as Dodd stands in a relaxed pose, Freddie tears his cell apart—banging his head on the cot and pulverizing the toilet. Anderson employs a lot of visual shortcuts to amplify the characters' relationships, heighten their inner struggles (Mihai Malaimare Jr.'s impeccable cinematography serves to evoke the period and highlight the metaphors, such as a recurring shot of a bright, blue ocean split by the wake of a ship, which becomes a motif for Freddie), and bridge certain gaps, like the way Dodd's plotting wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is almost always to her husband's side, just in frame—something of a subconscious force on his every decision.

The rest of Dodd's family is rightly suspicious of Freddie and try to play the patriarch's paranoia against his relationship with the unstable man. Dodd's ideas eventually become bigger than the man who formed them, and he is left clinging to whatever remnants of power he has left. There's a scene late in the film—a last-ditch effort on Dodd's part to convince Freddie of his importance to "The Cause" and to him—that is simultaneously awkward and heartbreaking. It is strange in that it enlists a rendition of "(I'd Like to Get You on a) Slow Boat to China" and devastating because of the exposed sincerity behind it. If one had not questioned the dynamics of power in the relationship between Freddie and Dodd beforehand, here is the matter laid bare. Freddie represents a promise; success with him means a total validation of everything in which Dodd believes.

Is Dodd, as his son (Jesse Plemons) says, making up his methods and philosophy as he goes? He probably is, but that does not mean he doesn't believe in them. As the final two scenes of The Master suggest, those practices also might actually be helping some people. Anderson is simply weighing the options.

Note: I was fortunate enough to see The Master projected from a 70mm print at Chicago's Music Box Theatre. The number of movie theaters that still have the technology to show films in this format is limited, but if you are able to see the film in that format, it is certainly the way to go. Hopefully, the release and the talk surrounding it will bring about a thoughtful, impassioned discussion about the vitality of actual, physical film and the necessity of its survival in this digital age.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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