Saturday, 1 December 2012
FILM REVIEW: The Master
The Master may not be the best film of the year - at least in my opinion - but it's got to be the most heavily digested. Even now, I'm still coming up with new thoughts, new angles on Paul Thomas Anderson's latest which is both an exploration of a soldier's post traumatic stress disorder and the foundations of Scientology. PTA has been especially reluctant to dwell on the latter observation, but screening one of the very first cuts of the film to Tom Cruise wasn't without reason. It's themes and character which drive The Master and gave myself and the audience a lot to think about on the walk home, but it's a neglect for a strong narrative which meant I struggled to tolerate it.
The aftermath of World War II leaves naval officer Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) at a loss with his life. Dependent on alcohol, aggressive and sexually aberrant he literally flees from one job to the next as a photographer in a luxury department store, to a cabbage picker on a farm. One night, escaping from the farm after his toxic cocktail mix kills a fellow worker, he jumps on a boat and conceals himself below deck. He is found the next morning and brought to the ship's captain, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who takes a shine to Freddie and his powerful homemade tipples, and invites him to stay with them - them being his family, including pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and his 'followers'. Freddie discovers Dodd is known as The Master, and is teacher and leader of a new movement called The Cause which focuses on spiritual enlightenment and the idea that all humans are immortal. The two strike up an impassioned friendship - Dodd finds a muse in Freddie and inspiration to write his second book, a complicated soul who he is both infuriated and fascinated by. For Freddie he has found someone who likes him and enjoys his company, and for that he develops a fierce loyalty to Dodd, angrily snapping out at those who question or defame him. Dodd tries to treat Freddie using methods of The Cause known as processing, but he is unable to curb his rages and the fellow members, and Peggy, begin to grow nervous of him and beg Dodd to cast him out. But despite Dodd's troubles with the authorities and naysayers and Freddie's unpredictability, each time they are forced apart they find a way to be drawn back to one another again.
At 144 minutes The Master beguiles and entrances, not least with its hypnotic score from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood (who also did We Need To Talk About Kevin and PTA's last film, There Will Be Blood), which was one of my favourite things to take away from the film. The hollow and melodic xylophone is like someone running their fingers up your spine - it's perfect. And because of the random nature, almost episodic rhythm PTA chooses to use, 144 minutes is actually the perfect length, as just as you start to grasp for attention the film ends. It's gorgeous to look at too, with sun bleached tones to the frames PTA uses for his shots - I particularly loved the scene where Dodd is arrested at a house call, and the camera is tilting upwards to look at him stood on the patio, with his friends and family surrounding him. He is an unconventional perfectionist, and that's what makes his films so visually appetising (see There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights).
Here is where I struggled. Freddie is an unknown, a character impossible to pin down, yet he is our protagonist. Phoenix's performance is not just in the contours and flexes of his face but in his whole body - it's a very physical performance, playing Freddie slightly hunched over, dragging his feet, arms bent into his back. But Freddie has no arc. He is at the end how we find him at the beginning - listless, angry, sexually obsessed, alone. He has met this man, Dodd, and had, by all accounts and by what we have seen, a life changing experience knowing him and being part of this cult-like following. But by the end, what impact has this had on him? In contrast, the antagonist figure Lancaster Dodd, is as complex as Freddie but has an intelligence that elevates him, and Hoffman's performance is so astounding in its extremes of violent outburst to quiet reflection that it is Dodd, for me, who compels the most. When he meets Freddie he is struggling with his second book, but soon after their first meeting he is up for hours writing, much to the amusement of his wife Peggy. And when the two argue or Freddie repels The Cause, it's always Dodd who brings him back - that is, until the second book has been published. After this there is a significant shift in his tolerance of Freddie's erratic behaviour, culminating in him giving Freddie an ultimatum to stay forever or leave and he will never speak to him again. Freddie leaves, and at the end of the film we are left with their friendship truly broken. It seems obvious that Dodd was using Freddie to further his own reputation and stature as The Master, seemingly lost for words for his next portfolio until Freddie somehow finds them for him, even though it directly contradicts his teachings in his first book. One of his followers (played by Laura Dern) picks up on this with him and he just dismisses her, leaving her full blown devotion to him riddled in doubt and his actions perfectly echoing his sceptical son's words to Freddie earlier in the film, "he's making all this up as he goes along... you don't see that?" But yet there is something untamable in Freddie that Dodd cannot shake, and even at the protests of his wife who cannot abide him, he will not let him go.
I don't think there is any doubt that Freddie fails to buy into the beliefs or is committed to The Cause, and for him his attraction to Dodd is for a friend, a companion, even a brother, a lover. It's about Dodd as an individual, and if he has to play along with the processing and the increasingly confounding tests then he will do it. PTA lingers on these moments which provide some of the best film making and performances of the year. Freddie's initial processing scene on the boat, where Dodd fires probing psychological questions at him and inviting Freddie to answer without blinking, is a mastery of drama. And later, Freddie's back and forth touching of the window and the wall as a technique to break his association patterns is as provocative viewing as you will see from anything all year. I just wish these exercises had amounted to something. They're fascinating to watch, and a great plot device for moulding and exploring a character, but what does it actually add to the narrative? The story is so thin on the ground that it's hard for the film to satisfyingly gel.
The biggest bone of contention is the last thirty minutes of the film, and I think this is a great way of testing your favour for the film. After leaving The Cause once again, Freddie is in a cinema alone watching a kid's film when an usher comes over with a telephone saying he has a call. Freddie picks up the receiver and Dodd is on the other line, telling him to come to England to see him, that he has something very important to tell him, that he has finally remembered where he remembers him from. In their very first meeting, and reiterated throughout their friendship, Dodd has always professed to knowing Freddie from somewhere, but never quite remembering where - "where do I know you from?" So Freddie answers his call again and travels to England where The Cause have set up a new residence. But Dodd and Peggy are cold, and unfriendly, and don't seem to have been expecting him, and Dodd and Freddie have their last meeting together where Dodd delivers and Freddie passes on his ultimatum to stay. Many have since interpreted the scene in the cinema to have been a dream, not least in its implausibility, but in Dodd's sudden change of tone when Freddie arrives in the flesh. But I just cannot buy this. How would Freddie know to go to England? How could he have dreamt that? I wish there had been a scene to show how he could have unconsciously stored that information in his brain (such as reading it in a newspaper, or a radio in the background), but it makes no sense - it makes more sense for Dodd to have known he was in that cinema at that exact moment and to call him. Plus, Freddie is not a dreamer - it's not in his personality, he is too straightforward, to carnal, almost. He doesn't long for Dodd the way Dodd longs for Freddie.
My inability to find a deeper connection and meaning to the film is what left me somewhat cold after it ended, and it failed to win me over enough to see it as anything other than an intriguing and interesting take on the characters and themes offered to me. They're not likable nor admirable, and it's a film that travels without going anywhere. When it tries to engage, the stuff with Freddie's childhood sweetheart for example, it feels flat and detached from the feel of the rest of the film. These people are animals, a notion PTA goes over and over again in Freddie's actions and Dodd's reactions to them. Story doesn't seem to be able to co-exist in this film with such dominant and domineering characters. A note also to say how excellent (if slightly miscast in terms of age) Amy Adams is as Peggy Dodd - revelatory towards the end when you realise she is more committed to The Cause than her own husband is, and it makes you wonder if she was like that when he met her or has he concurrently created this person?
This is definitely a film for lovers of cinema as an art, and for fans of Paul Thomas Anderson, and you'll take out of it what you give to it. As with all art, I appreciate it more than I get it, and for me The Master offers up a really interesting question on our enjoyment of films and judgement of them: what's better, an emotional or an intelligent response? And for me, solely the latter reaction is not enough.