Wednesday, October 3, 2012

THE MASTER (2012)

Written & Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson


Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA.  September 21, 2012  6:15PM


It is, by no means, any exaggeration to proclaim that Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the greatest contemporary filmmakers working today. All one has to do is take a look at his amazing oeuvre, which only includes six feature films to date, to witness his strong commitment to his craft, the ability to coax out powerful performances from his cast of actors and a desire to contribute unconventional and slightly eccentric stories to cinema.

Starting with his 1996 film, "Hard Eight" (originally entitled "Sydney"), a crime-thriller featuring Phillip Baker Hall and an early screen appearance by Gwyneth Paltrow. While this was not completely successful but still quite fascinating and showcased his great promise. A film about porn stars working in the 1970's San Fernando Valley in "Boogie Nights" became Mr. Anderson's critically acclaimed breakthrough, earning him and the unappreciated film star, Burt Reynolds their first Oscar nominations and made people take former hip-hop musician, Mark Wahlberg seriously as an actor. "Magnolia" was next with Anderson retuning to the Valley with an all-star cast playing characters in search of the meaning of life that earned the director another writing Oscar nomination and a Supporting Actor nod for Tom Cruise. Comedian, Adam Sandler (of all people) actually gave an pretty, amazing performance in Anderson's version of a romantic comedy, "Punch-Drunk Love" in 2002 with Emily Watson as the object of his affection. "There Will Be Blood" in 2007 earned seven Academy-Award nominations (including Best Picture) with Daniel Day-Lewis winning a well deserved award for Best Actor in the role of a ruthless oilman who will trample down anyone in his quest for power.

The latest, "The Master" tells it's story through the eyes of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a lost and damaged soul, who after meeting a smooth-talking, self-proclaimed prophet uses his dubious, experimental techniques to try to alter the course of his troubled life. This new work has all of the elements that have made Anderson's previous films so impressive but this is made up more of a series of compelling moments instead of a cohesive narrative yet what powerfully, seductive moments.

Before Quell even mutters a single word, there's a feeling that something is clearly off about him. An intense, manic energy along with a sense of sexual depravity, combined with his dark, beady eyes and skeletal appearance, gives off a completely creepy demeanor but there is also an air of melancholia which he struggles to keep deeply buried. After serving in the military near the end of World War II, Quell is being observed for post-traumatic stress,  although it's unclear whether his erratic behavior was an issue before he enlisted. He spends much of his time creating homemade liquor (a dangerous concoction created using available ingredients which can include ethanol and lighter fluid) which he heavily consumes. After he's released from the Navy, Freddie attempts to fit back in to post-war society with various jobs; first as a photographer at a department store, then as a field hand but each ending disastrously due to his irrational, destructive conduct, usually fueled by alcohol.

Quell's life is dramatically altered after he stows away on the yacht of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) during the celebration of the marriage of his daughter. Dodd is a doctor, writer, philosopher and the leader of a religious-like movement called "The Cause" and he is referred to by his followers as "The Master". Dodd feels like he has known this odd young man from somewhere before but soon the two men form a deep bond, initially over moonshine but eventually connecting through the Master's extensive exercises which is called, "processing" involving repetitive questions that are used to help deal with their emotions and release past trauma as well as past lives.

Family is important to Dodd and his are all involved in the program which is headed by his loyal wife, Peggy (Amy Adams),who is expecting their second child and a fierce defender of her husband's life work. Freddie is welcomed in to the fold as he becomes a close part of the organization as he travels with them to the homes of wealthy followers, spreading the word at their parties to invited guests as they solicit for donations.

Questions are raised on the validity of Dodd's teachings and his lack of proper qualifications to practice medicine which raises the ire of the usually calm and collected man while Quell is considered an increasingly disruptive presence in the group, most particularly by Dodd's wife, who feels the program is not helping him as his drinking and violent outbursts have not diminished.

There had been rumors that "The Master" is a thinly-veiled (or at the very least, heavily inspired) telling of L. Ron Hubbard and his creation of Dianetics and the Church of Scientology but Mr. Anderson is not interested in simply fictionalizing his story and has created something far more interesting. We are brought in to this complicated, unconventional character study that deals with faith and loyalty but Mr. Anderson doesn't judge and provides no clear answers to the many questions that he has raised.

The film seems created to feel like an event and in that, it succeeds with the bold work of cinematographer, Mihai Malaimare, Jr. and the use of rarely seen 70MM screen format that creates these wonderfully, crisp visual images that helps elevate "The Master" to another level. The lead actors make a terrific team as their connection feels deep with hints that it could possibly be more than simply brotherly. Mr. Hoffman brilliantly portrays this highly intelligent, imposing man with a grand ego, certainly enjoying being worshiped and admired but who also truly believes that his teachings will help mankind. I can't say I've ever been a big fan of Mr. Phoenix but he immerses himself, mentally and physically, so deep in to his role that it's quite shocking and thrilling to witness. I can't even imagine another performer who could have possibly even come close to the great work this actor has accomplished and would have committed themselves so thoroughly and completely. I believe that Mr. Phoenix qualifies as one of the best acting performances of the year, if not the best.

Plenty of glowing praise has been heaped upon "The Master" and while it's certainly a riveting and masterful work, it still feels a little unfocused and slightly baffling compared to what Mr. Anderson has previously accomplished. A second viewing seems almost required to take another look at seemingly inconsequential earlier moments that might help clarify later scenes. Or not. Regardless, "The Master" still should be seen as it is certainly one of the most passionate, exhilarating films released this year.