Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is an uncompromising, rigorous and disciplined work of modernist cinema—a twisty, difficult film which undermines all expectations, keeping the spectator at a critical distance throughout yet continually holding our attention via mesmerizing visuals and knotty moral and ethical conundrums. Gorgeously shot and edited, The Master looks magnificent on the big screen, and the relationship between the film’s two central characters generates a lot of heat – the work on display is about as explosive and compelling as screen acting gets.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix play deeply flawed, self-destructive men in mid-century America – one a charismatic megalomaniac with untapped resources of anger and the other a feral and self-loathing World War II veteran drifting through life fueled by toxic combinations of liquid refreshment which would kill the average, or should I say normal, joe. The relationship between Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd and Phoenix’ Freddie Quell is, well, very strange. Dodd’s Apollonian instincts both feed on and wish to tame Freddie’s chaotic impulses. Their’s is a love story of sorts (and the soundtrack of period pop songs works to underscore the attraction). Is it sexual, paternal, fueled by competitive instincts or jealousy? Is Freddie looking for a place to belong? Does he jump on Dodd’s ship simply to return to the comforting rhythms of life on the open sea? Is Dodd resisting his own self-imposed narrative (a brand of American hucksterism as old as P.T. Barnum)? The film doesn’t really invest in answering any of these questions. The final forty-five minutes or so are more explicitly discursive, playing with space and time as Picasso once played with shape, line and volume. There are no moments of discovery, no climatic revelations, no bowling pins or milkshakes to drink. We are pretty much left on our own to tease out an interpretative set of responses. Finally, as everyone by now knows, Dodd leads a group of passionate followers in highly questionable cultic activities (one part hypnosis, one part chimeric expressionism, one part psychotherapy). Quell is his most fascinating subject. Scientologists should probably be concerned as this is some weird ass shit. Though she does far more than hover at the margins of the narrative, I don’t know exactly where to place Amy Adams’ work in this brief collection of first responses, but she is great, one of Anderson’s strongest female characters ever. I’ll have to just keep sorting through my impressions. Like every other review I’ve read, the film certainly demands a second viewing (many will regret their first and fair enough). Given the paucity of decent films in 2012 (all told about three truly deserving titles over the last nine months and two of those foreign films released in 2011), it shouldn’t take too much impetus to haul my ass back into the cinema.