Monday, September 24, 2012

THE MASTER Asks Big Questions, But Provides Few Answers


- There's no doubt - Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the great filmmakers of our time. His movies are ambitious, thematically-rich, gorgeous to look at, and typically filled with stunning performances from top-notch actors. To me, Anderson reached his apex with his last film, There Will Be Blood, which was an incredible instant-classic. One of the top films of the last decade. And now ... after a lengthy wait, comes The Master. My anticipation for this film was off the charts. Anderson, teaming with Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman, in a film that was purportedly inspired by the life of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology? It seemed fascinating, thrilling, and like a potential masterpiece in the making.

The truth is though - I came out of The Master with mixed emotions. I felt like I had just witnessed some of the very best performances I'd *ever* seen in a film. I knew what I had seen was stunningly shot, meticulously crafted. Certainly, the characters and the narrative left me a lot to chew on. But I just wasn't quite sure what to make of the movie. It felt scattered, disjointed. It felt like Anderson had a lot of disparate ideas about man and master, about religion and cult, about post-war America, about Id, Ego, and Super Ego. But I wasn't quite sure if he ever fully tied those ideas together into one cohesive whole. Not that there's anything wrong with a collage-style movie. Anderson, of course, has experimented with that very idea in films like Magnolia. But you need that one through-line, that connective tissue, those "aha! moments" where the bell goes off and you see the forest for the trees. The Master is a film that may reward multiple viewings in that manner - as its layers are peeled back and the Truth behind some of its mysteries is exposed. But my gut feeling is that, while this film will be analyzed and discussed for years to come, its sketchiness and looseness will make most interpretations seem like they're reaching a bit.

But let's go back to the acting for a second. For let it be said: Joaquin Phoenix simply takes things to another level in this one. As Freddie Quells, Phoenix has a Brando-esque rawness that is totally captivating. He lets it all hang out, and goes for broke. Quells is sailor returned from serving in World War II. To what extent he always was a certain way, and to what extent he's been changed and warped by the war, we don't quite know. But Freddie, when we first meet him, is like some kind of feral, almost neanderthal-esque man who wants to fight and fornicate. Post-war, he wanders from odd job to odd job, but his self-sabotaging ways get him into trouble. Ultimately, he stumbles onto a cruise ship while trying to escape from some guys he's run afoul of, and has a fateful meeting with one Lancaster Dodd. Philip Seymour Hoffman shapes Dodd into a bellowing, charismatic cult leader - "The Master" - a blowhard philosopher/intellectual who is the founder of "The Cause" - a new-age belief system that bears some resemblance to Scientology. Dodd, a man typically surrounded by followers and yes-men, takes a liking to Quells. There's something about Quells' unchecked id that fascinates Dodd. Dodd's entire belief system is about controlling and repressing man's basest and most animalistic urges - and yet, The Master hints that Dodd seeks to tame Quells as a means of, in turn, taming himself. In a way, "The Cause" seems as much a way for Dodd to come to terms with his own vices - sex, booze, rage, etc. - as it is anything else. But Dodd is also clearly a charlatan and a fraud - a modern-day Wizard of Oz. Even he seems uncertain of what B.S. he'll spew forth next. But like many con-artists, part of the game is conning himself. And so, Dodd and Quells enjoy a unique sort of relationship. To Dodd, Quells is almost like a dog to be trained. And in many ways, Quells acts like a dog - ever loyal to his master, only half-understanding the things being said to him, being trained to obey.

The relationship between Dodd and Quells is what makes The Master sing. The scenes between Hoffman and Phoenix are often electric - a clash of titans that will shake you and stir you. There is a love and a hate between the two characters that is truly epic. And that strange relationship is made all the more compelling by the two actors bringing it to life. Let me just emphasize: what Phoenix does here is totally remarkable. As theatrical and singular as Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, yet with a naturalism and sense of immersion in character that I've rarely seen in film.

The problem is that there is a vague sense here of existential conflict, of life and death struggle, of a clash of wills between two men. But it feels like an outline that's not fully formed. In part, it may be that the film is actually hurt by its ties to the Scientology story. The fact is, there are some undeniable ties to the life story of L. Ron Hubbard - enough that it will be in the back of your mind throughout the movie - but the movie ultimately ends up having little to do with Scientology at all. To me though, the fact that the movie draws *any* comparison ends up hurting it. Because the moments that do evoke it also emphasize that the film doesn't really talk about the sorts of questions we all have about the religion: why would seemingly smart and well-off people join it? Why wouldn't they question the outlandish mythology on which it's based? And to what extent did L. Ron Hubbard intend for it to become what it has? The Master isn't really interested in any of these more specific topics. The movie is painting a picture in very, very broad strokes. It wants to explore why one man would follow another, even if the master's philosophy never really makes sense in any meaningful way to the follower. The movie posits that in fact, we are all Quells, and that only a thin veneer of B.S. allows us to function as civilized human beings. Because Dodd's "The Cause," says The Master, was never *really* about explaining the mysteries of the universe. No - it was, only, about creating a system that would bring this man followers - that would create for him a flock. Again though, while the movie works - and is thought-provoking - on this sort of big, grand level ... it's less compelling as an actual narrative.

Anderson stages the movie with a strange blend of matter-of-factness and dreamlike, surreal storytelling. At times, what we see may or may not be Quells' imagination at work - his delusions. But Anderson seems to shift from reality to fantasy on a whim. "He's making all of this up as he goes along," warns Dodd's doubting son to Quells - speaking of his father's philosophical principles that make up The Cause. Sometimes, the same could be said of Anderson's narrative. Maybe that's the intended effect? I don't know. But certain reveals fall flat. Quells' relationship with a young lover from back home is more awkward and baffling than anything else. So too is Dodd's strained relationship with his icy wife, played with great restraint by Amy Adams. Adams does a great job in the role, but her relationship with Dodd - and with Quells - is left so open for interpretation that it's hard to get a handle on. And that's the thing ... there are many puzzle pieces here, but few if any are moved into place by the movie's end. As phenomenal as the lead performances are, the film leaves you wanting for some sort of narrative meat to sink your teeth into. Anderson isn't trying for Lynchian abstractness, but he begins veering into that territory in a way that I'm not sure he fully intended. Perhaps Phoenix's brilliant but admittedly over-the-top performance ended up pushing the film in that direction. Perhaps Anderson - known for dreaming up disparate scenes and then later tying them together - never quite found that connective tissue I mentioned earlier. But regardless of his intentions, too many scenes in The Master left me wondering what the heck Anderson was trying to say. And no explanations I've seen or heard have yet sold me that there is, in fact, something major that I was missing. Maybe there is some grand, unifying theory of The Master out there that will change my mind. More likely, however, is that this is simply a case of big but vaguely-defined themes overwhelming the rest of the movie, at the  expense of  definable narrative progression and character arcs.

PT Anderson is one of the great modern filmmakers. And any film fan owes it to themselves to go see The Master - because even if it isn't a masterpiece, per se, it is one of those brilliant-but-flawed works whose high points are very, very high. The performances are breathtaking, the cinematography mind-blowing (not to mention - the intense, mood-setting score from Johnny Greenwood). Individual scenes are stand-outs. And yet, those high points make the movie's inability to fully resonate that much more frustrating. In a way, it reminded me a bit of this summer's Prometheus - grasping at the Big Questions but never quite addressing them head-on. The Master asks much, but rarely answers in a satisfying or definitive manner. And so you have to wonder - what story does this movie tell? I suspect that film fans will be wondering - and discussing - for a long time to come.

My Grade: B+

No comments:

Post a Comment