Saturday, September 15, 2012

Erratic behavior - 'The Master' review

You can say this of Paul Thomas Anderson: He goes big or goes home. All of his movies are about big ideas, historical explorations, allegorical cautionary tales about our morals and our psyches. Be it in the unlikely connections of the disaffected in Magnolia or the epic showdown of capitalism and religion in There Will Be Blood, Anderson has employed a variety of filmmaking strategies with formal precision and a nod toward unconventional narrative experiments. Maybe that's why, despite just having made a handful of movies, us self-declared cinephiles seem to salivate over everything he does.

With The Master, Anderson moves to the years immediately following World War II. It's a time of immense social change, a reconstitution of suburban organization and an economic boom. But as movies like The Best Years of Our Lives tell us, it's also a moment of having to come to terms with the physical and psychological scars of WWII. The Master is the emotional antithesis of Wyler's film -- instead of melodrama, there's a near-absence of emotion. Everything is intellectualized.

Freddy Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is a traumatized, mentally unstable, thoroughly alcoholic veteran. He picks fights, drinks paint thinner, and has an obsession with breasts. He crosses paths with author Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who heads The Cause, a kind of pseudo-religion (read: cult) that believes to have the answers for human existence. Dodd's methods entail a kind of therapeutic hypnosis and interrogation that asks his followers to discover and come to terms with our past lives. And so the two men bond -- Freddy because his life needs purpose; Dodd because he can exert control over Freddy with ease. The film is less about their conflict -- they are never really enemies, and never really friends -- but more about the way their relationship is both symbiotic and parasitic. It's a blistering, hypnotic, and at-times epic portrait of a fractured American consciousness desperate for answers.

Remember in The Silence of the Lambs, when Clarice and Hannibal have that final conversation in his makeshift holding cell? Think back if you can. As the scene progresses, the shots get closer and closer, until we're finally staring at two incredibly overwhelming close-ups. The effect, as described by director Jonathan Demme and many-a-film critic, is to make everything else obsolete, to turn the entire world into these actors' faces. Well, that's kind of what a majority of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master is like. Long shots of close-ups, often from a slightly low vantage point, often with jagged and obscuring shadows turning the actors' faces into canyons of opaque anxieties. It's a suffocating, absolutely compelling aesthetic. There may not be much of a narrative, but this is a tableaux that uses every cinematic tool at its creator's disposal. I can't remember the last time I was so involved in watching faces stare and talk at each other.

If you haven't read by now, Anderson chose to shoot The Master entirely in 70mm -- for the sake of simplicity, we'll just say is basically HD film. It allows colors to be richer, fuller. It renders space more approximately. And for an industry burning its bridges with film and moving headlong into digital, it may be the last of its kind. Heck, the last movie shot fully in 70mm was the 1996 version of Hamlet. You might not really notice it often, but there are occasional moments where the colors just seem to be exploding from the scene, where the detail in Phoenix's craggly face is almost unbearable. Sadly though, most of the country won't see The Master in its intended format, because a majority of screens can only project digital versions. If this is one of film's (as a technology and physical property) swan songs -- and I suspect it'll be more than 12 years until the next 70mm movie -- you'd be hard pressed to find something more gorgeous. Shot by Mihai Malaimare (Youth Without Youth), The Master oscillates between formally stunning long shots and devastatingly intimate close-ups with ease. The lighting and framing is enough to make an avid cinephile salivate, but the long takes add to the intensity of the image. The shots of the California landscape in the first act, or the Arizona desert later in the film, lend an epic awe to certain moments, while arrangements inside homes utilize deep and shallow space to fantastic effect. The camera is often placed below an actor, perhaps mimicking our position of looking up at the screen, or of Freddy's position of looking up at Dodd.

I realize that anything I might write about The Master will feel thoroughly insufficient. It is a huge stab at greatness. It explores Freddy's world and mentality so completely, and yet offers so little in return. What Anderson refuses to provide in explanation or catharsis, he overindulges in surface pleasures. And while I think I have a reading of the film tentatively mapped in my mind -- don't worry, I won't spoil anything -- I wouldn't be surprised if I found that reading completely challenged on second viewing. It's not that The Master is particularly dense or hard to follow. It's that it doesn't have those big emotional moments to really grab us. You won't get those "fire and brimstone" speeches and those snarling monologues that made There Will Be Blood so gripping. The trajectory of the story has very few highs and lows; it's not episodic, or even elliptical. Much causality is drained out of the film, making each scene feel like its own vignette that connects in different ways to what comes immediately before and after. This makes talking about the film difficult, but certainly makes it an incredible experience to watch. Whether that purposeful elusive storytelling will bolster or hurt the film on repeat viewings, I couldn't tell you; I was too swept up in the fantastic filmmaking and acting to think about it.

Joaquin Phoenix, in his first film since the PR debacle that was I'm Still Here, gives what I'd dare call the performance of his life. Did you hate him when he got really fat and acted like a fool on Letterman? It's okay, he'll win you back. With his face sunken beneath his cheekbones and his shoulder bones protruding from his back, he skulks and stumbles his way with the kind of physical and mental commitment that feels like a total transformation. It's not simply for show -- Phoenix feels like he lives inside of Freddy's drunken soul. In a particularly fantastic shot where he answers many questions about his life and philosophy as fast as he can while trying not to blink, he exudes sincerity and desperation in the same nasal-y breath.

You could heap much the same hyperbole on Philip Seymour Hoffman, and yet his performance feels like less of a revelation. As a composed, pompous "theoretical philosopher and man," he does enough to come off as overly confident, sly, and yet confused by his own ideology. It's the kind of work that plays straight man to Phoenix, and much of what Hoffman does is subtle. It's in how his face and tone doesn't change, in how he holds a pose rather than flail about. In this sense, The Master is about the clashing of two men desperately trying to order a chaotic society. But it's also about woman, and her place in this world. Amy Adams, as Dodd's devout wife, may initially feel stuck on the sidelines, but her moments are among the most snarling. With a self-righteous clarity, she stakes herself a true believer and defender, a spiritual warrior. Adams last appeared with Hoffman in Doubt (I'll let you be amused by how their characters here relate to those in that film), and it's easy to see that four years have made her a more mature but no less involving actress.

The film divides its acts among its geography: Starting with a prologue in the Pacific, it moves from California to New York, Philadelphia, Arizona, Massachusetts, and England. You could consider this structure like a play, for each "act" is largely in a self-contained space, but there's not a lot of theatricality to the staging. It's more lyrical, relying on particular combinations of image and music to portray certain ideas about how the characters' shifts embody particular neuroses of an underlying, collectively discernible American psyche.  If the movie can be said to follow the steps of indoctrination, of the establishment of order, then it necessarily follows that the film form itself is contained, rigid, accounting for a kind of mirroring of this order and invoking a rapturous awe.

This makes The Master something of an abstraction. It has a narrative, but that story is almost secondary to what it means. For some, that will understandably be off-putting, as if Anderson is trying to sway us under his own spell, using really pretty images to reel us in and convert us to his cult. But here's the thing: Watching The Master is quite literally like feeling in the grip of a master. There's a similar feeling to a Hitchcock or Kubrick film -- maybe it doesn't quite make sense, or grab you emotionally, and maybe you don't agree with it, but you can't question that whatever's on the screen is exactly what the director wants to have there and is absolutely serving a purpose to some kind of end. It's the kind of film that deepens as time goes on, drawing formal allusions to things from earlier in the film, integrating more complex aural and visual motifs, and utilizing as many aspects of film form as it can draw upon to enrich the content.

If anything, it builds to nowhere, leaving us dangling in a coda that fastens the beginning and end together. The Master has big questions on its mind: Who are we? Why do we seek answers? Where do we seek them from? What does it mean to belong to a group? How do we relate ourselves to each other? Its portrayal of Freddy and Dodd's contrasts feels complete, without ever offering a real conclusion to its queries. It leaves that for us to think about, even if the film seems to actively resist knee-jerk reactions. It's a movie built out of tones, passages, moods, ideas. I suppose, if anything, The Master affords us an opportunity to reflect on the experience of film as an art form. Do these faces, these exchanges, these passages of motion and physicality and disjunctive scoring, actually add up to something "great"? Is the experience, which might best be described as heightened hypnosis, actually revelatory? Perhaps not. But in a film about searching for answers and asking questions, Anderson boldly presents us with this text that we ourselves shall ask questions and search for answers in.

In allegorizing an unhinged America, Paul Thomas Anderson continues to turn his career into a series of unique surprises, confounding expectations and working ever towards defining "America" through the movies.


Dan O. said...

Good review James. Not as compelling or epic as Anderson's last flick, but still features plenty to gaze at, be entertained by, and get gripped onto right from the start. Amazing performances from the cast too, and I think it's time for Phoenix to get his Oscar statue.

James Gilmore said...

Thanks, Dan. I would've been shocked if 'The Master' was as good as 'There Will Be Blood,' which I think is about as perfect as movies get. Gotta try to have reasonable expectations

Brian Birmingham said...

“The controversial new movie, “The Master,” is described as a forbidden look into the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Author Steve Hassan, of “Freedom of Mind,” spoke to the “CBS This Morning: Saturday” co-hosts about the movie and why it’s got Scientologists up in arms.”:;lst;1

The Freedom of Mind information page on the Church of Scientology can be found here!

Info on Steve’s new book, Freedom of Mind: Helping Loved Ones Leave Controlling People, Cults and Beliefs, can be found here: