The Master (2012)
The Master (USA) Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson Written by Paul Thomas Anderson Starring Jaoquin Phoenix; Phyllip Seymour Hoffman; Amy Adams; Laura Dern; Jess Piemons; Ambyr Childers; Kevin O’Connor;
Big event movies coming out of Hollywood now consist almost solely of tent-pole action dominated visual carnival rides whose genesis almost exclusively arises from video games, toys, comic strips, graphic novels, epic fantasy fiction, and other B grade sources. There are few North American directors working today with the kind of chops and artistic credibility to create any meaningful widespread anticipation based primarily on their body of work. While there may still be some gravitas surrounding, say, the latest from Michael Mann, Martin Scorcese, or Steven Soderbergh, even someone like Steven Spielberg (a mogul worth billions who produces his own films) is hard pressed to pony up for the kind of marketing campaigns necessary to compete with franchise extravaganzas budgeted at 100 and 200 million and more.
Paul Thomas Anderson (along with The Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson and perhaps Terrence Malick) is one of the few auteur directors possessing enough cache to generate serious interest in any film he directs. The Master represents a jump in budget from his previous, There Will Be Blood (from 25 to 35 million), a sum put up by relative newcomer Annapurna Films (created and run by Larry Ellison’s daughter Anna) after being turned down by some of the majors (including the Weinsteins, who distribute), and gaining a lot of publicity over its reputed skewering of Scientology (in the film it’s called The Cause).
Though the story is certainly based on the formation of L. Ron Hubbard’s baby (one leader who is a writer, and a sailor, with a scientific background; same time frame; discussion of multiple lives and past trauma; “auditing”; “processing”; a major shift in the applied terminology and methodology as voiced by a new book; mention of aliens; full move to Great Britain, etc.) it’s not exactly a specific searing indictment and Anderson avoids the more fantastic elements that characterize the real life organization/self help system/religion/cult. The film is primarily about its two lead characters, and the story about the movement it depicts winds up taking a backseat.
The Master is reminiscent of Malick’s Tree of Life due mainly to a shooting style (the first film to employ 65mm in over fifteen years) that encompasses a plethora of wide exterior vistas, use of period (40s/50s) setting, numerous flashbacks and dream/fantasy sequences, and the very epic nature of its subject matter. The two films share a kind of free flowing, impressionistic consciousness that melds time and strays from the confines of traditional narrative. While Malick’s film was decidedly more bombastic, it was also more visually stunning, more obviously personal in nature (though Anderson’s father was a WWII navy vet), and more emotional in the telling.
Anderson’s The Master, however, is also devoid of the kind of extreme experimental hubris marring Malick’s near masterpiece (no dinosaurs here), and thusly more contained, though its reach still far exceeds most films made anywhere, let alone in a country that on the whole likes its cinema imbued with only the very tiniest sprinkling of “art”. Though enigmatic in its own right, Anderson trusts the purely visual less than Malick so the film is (perhaps also partly due to the subject matter) interspersed with actorly passages with heavy dialogue, mostly spoken by Phillip Seymour Hoffman (as The Master/Lancaster Dodd) as he spits out the dogma of his beliefs. While in his film Malick relies on his usual voice over narration to piece together the fragmented story, the tract relayed by Hoffman is not enough to adequately bolster either the narrative path of his acolyte, protagonist Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) or his pivotal relationship to his mentor.
The famously media shy Anderson (a trait he shares to a much lesser extent with Stanley Kubrick; and the aforementioned Malick) emerged as a kind of film-making wunderkind, and to date (he’s now forty two) has made five very good films, and a compelling case for greatness can probably be put forth for all but his first (which was merely good-very good). This, his sixth feature effort, may be his most far reaching, at least in terms of its serious minded ambitions (though There Will be Blood; Magnolia; and Boogie Nights are all unwieldy in their own right). The film is undoubtedly beautiful to look at, and sections reveal a filmmaker as talented as any in cinema, though one wonders if the admirable obliqueness winds up coming at the expense of the overall solidity of the story structure.
Said story centers on Lynn, Massachusetts native Freddie, who we first view during WWII working on a ship, and sharing leave with shipmates on an exquisitely photographed unnamed island. We come to find out that Freddie is a troubled, sex-starved, brooding, not so-young individual who, with the war at an end, finds himself placed in a military psych ward. Upon release, he takes several jobs, but his drinking and erratic behavior lead him spiraling into a drifter’s life. He eventually comes into contact with Dodd, a writer, scientist, and budding leader of a spiritual self-help movement, who takes Freddie under his wing and allows him to join his itinerant bunch.
Though inexplicably devoid of a Boston accent, the thirty seven year old Phoenix gives a startling performance as a severe alcoholic scarred by his past experiences. Bone thin by the end of the film - hunched, stoop shouldered, his pants pulled well over his waist, he mumbles and contorts his face, his physical appearance and countenance a manifestation of gut-wrenching inner turmoil. We learn a few more bits and pieces about his life as the film unfolds, though we are never allowed to see any of the war or childhood trauma of his past, a fact that contributes to us never getting a solid grasp on who and what Freddie is.
The same must also be said about Dodd. Though expertly played by Hoffman, we never get beyond the rhetoric, and therefore fail to delve into the nature of the man. There are fascinating scenes exploring the initiation and indoctrination of those desperately seeking spiritual fulfillment (Freddy is like a human guinea pig), a process that is allowed to take some shape given the run time. The mix of hard to deny basic truth and Dodd’s humane (yet concurrently manipulative) treatment of Freddy are juxtaposed with a collection of indicators that the man in charge is a charlatan. One of the most memorable lines in the film is issued by Dodd’s son Val (Jesse Plemons), who says to Freddie at one point, “he’s making it up as he goes along. Can’t you see that?”
Obviously, this is a love story between these two men and an exploration of father and sons biological and otherwise, and there are themes present having to do with loneliness, disaffection, alienation, and trauma. Anderson is always exploring scenarios dealing with wounded outsiders and their place in straight society and disaffection and dissatisfaction are certainly longstanding afflictions endemic to our consumer based nation, perhaps particularly relevant given the post-war, conservative era. Unfortunately, the weaker, overly self-conscious second half becomes something of a procedural focusing mostly on the processing, and there is ultimately very little tie up in relation to the movement itself or any of the characters involved.
The women populating the film - Amy Adams (as Dodd’s wife Peggy); Laura Dern (as publisher Helen Sullivan); Ambyr Childers (as daughter Elizabeth); Amy Ferguson (as a salesgirl); and Madison Beaty (as Dorothy) are unfortunately given virtually nothing to do. Dern is barely on screen (perhaps a victim of the editing room?), and with the exception of one scene with Phoenix, Adams’ role consists mainly of sitting or standing somewhere near Dodd and occasionally re-affirming her support for the cause, or offering warnings about Freddie. The younger actresses - Beaty; Ferguson; and Childers, all have brief bright spots, but the film is disinterested in anything but Phoenix and Hoffman.
Though Anderson allows a few of the scenes between his compelling leads to go off the rails (i.e. the jail sequence), it should be said that the performances are interesting ones arrived at by two very different approaches. In fact, it’s this very divergence that establishes a kind of stylistic sparring that is both fascinating in moments, but also uncomfortable. Neither of these actors reaches the quasi-cartoonish extremes of, for instance, Daniel Day Lewis’ Plainview in There Will Be Blood, and the film stays in a relatively realistic realm, though the actors are afforded no lack of emotive space. It is as difficult to discern whether this lack of connectivity between them is by design or something arising out of the actors interpretation of the material/their roles as written, perhaps as difficult as it is to contextualize the obvious homosexual underpinnings of their on screen relationship. Seemingly, the rub lies in the writing, which amounts to leaving otherwise engaging characters spinning their wheels a bit with nowhere to go. Yes, ennui and loneliness are part and parcel of the story here, and perhaps that lack of connection or space between them that we palpably feel, is merely a theme personified by the interaction between the leads, though again, one can only wonder about intent.
While The Master may not attain all it strives for it is essential that talented filmmakers like Anderson continue to challenge themselves with material that aspires to greatness. It is up to the individual artist to grow from mistakes, to learn, to evolve, and to continue to create art that merits discussion and debate. On that front, there is no question that The Master succeeds. It is a film that merits multiple viewings, one that will have lasting significance, and although flawed surely one of the best films of the year.