The Master

The Master ★★★★★

I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man just like you." – Lancaster Dodd

Much like his character Mr. Dodd, Paul Thomas Anderson seems to be hopelessly inquisitive, and thus a confounding, enigmatic auteur and artist… which makes it hard to believe he is a big name Hollywood director. Take away Terrence Malick, and he’s probably the closest director Hollywood has that has not allowed his marked, personal philosophy to be tainted.
He started off so simply, an inauspicious heist film called Hard Eight that showed promise in sharp character study. Okay, not a stretch for a debut. We’ve seen it before. Then he moved into his Altman phase with Boogie Nights and, even more so, Magnolia. These are sprawling, fractured character pieces with moments of humor, and a lot of music at the center of it all. After three years, he surfaced with Punch-Drunk Love, a quasi-cerebral romantic comedy that signalled his transition as a filmmaker. He went intimate here, more focused on scoping out one or two characters than twelve or twenty. But then came his “great American epic” of sorts, 2007’s There Will Be Blood. A remarkable, noticeable transition. It’s grandiose filmmaking: from the [corrupt] oil purging of American land; to Daniel-Day Lewis’s monstrous lead potrayal; to Robert Elswit’s rich, superb photography; to Jonny Greenwood’s tonally-jarring score that makes the viewer grab hold of their chair; everything about that film is attention-getting. There was no doubting at that point his talents were at their peak, but his philosophy had seemed to have changed. The problem with his early Altman-esque efforts were that he didn’t have really have pointed ideas in the way Altman’s did – not that the films weren’t brazen filmmaking in and of themselves. (Look at a film like Nashville and tell me it doesn’t scream out our country’s insecurities and neuroses during the end of such a turbulent time in our nation’s history.) Still, what did Boogie Nights or Magnolia truly have to say outside of themselves, besides being homages to golden storytelling and directors of Hollywood’s past. Blood mainlined Anderson’s philosophy, pointed us the audience in a specific direction. It merged something very American from our history, the oil search, with religion [and its corruptive qualities] – a far reaching theme, as always – and then swung for the fences as far the production value went. He made it a blistering picture, one hell bent on scoping out religion for what he feels it is. And now, he has done it again here, tackling mostly the same subject, but with a different angle.
The Master is an angry film. We only need to see Joaquin Phoenix’s performance to understand that. Unbridled and animalistic it comes at you. And just like There Will Be Blood, that anger is confrontational but, here, it’s below the surface like one of Freddie’s Rorschact tests, seething, laying wait, wanting to be understood. It chooses not to wear its emotions on its sleeve, but asks its audience to search for them, and upon them being found, devours the audience whole.
Looking at every single aspect of filmmaking, this film is painstakingly crafted. For me, it begins with Anderson’s decision to film in 70mm. Most have praised this, but some have balked. Mind you, I didn’t have the opportunity to see it in pure 70mm, but it was certainly an enveloping watch, and if any audience member leaves not having felt that (no matter where they see it), I don’t know what to say, other than they have probably missed the entire point of the film’s experience, or just don’t really understand how technical choices like this can add to a film’s quality of depth. 70mm in this situation allows for lived in, yet somehow vibrant colors to come alive; everything feels set in, ingrained, yet harsh. It also paints an understood nostalgic picture/ideal of the 50’s, which immediately juxtaposes against his gratingly real characters with their troubles and the script's sardonic ideas mixed with sexual undertones. Mihai Malaimare, Jr.’s cinematography is gorgeous, layered, and iconic (Quell laying above the ship being the most notable) and he uses Anderson’s 70 mm to perfection. This is a director and DP coming together on one vision and bringing full fruition to both the visual and literary ideas represented in the script. In turn, the production design and costumes only add to the denseness of the quality of image and blend so perfectly, it’s hard to truly recognize how good they are.
Greenwood and his music once again leave the most indelible mark on an Anderson film. What he brings is a tonally and emotionally robust and complex score that seems to match what Anderson is doing with his ideas and visuals. The loud, brazen, complicated, sweeping, even jazzy tones brings out the arcane qualities in our film’s protagonist/catalyst (Phoenix) and the story just like they did together surrounding Day-Lewis and his character in There Will Be Blood. The score and the lead role seem to mirror each other, showing the rise and fall of such a complicated psyche.
To say that the acting is one par with the best these three actors have given us in the past is an insult to what each brings to the table here. They are the defining point of this film. Adams has been skirted to the side in favor of the more robust co-leading performances of Hoffman and Phoenix, but it’s she who is the puppet master here. The true Master? Her terse-lipped, calmly controlled mother and pseudo-preacher’s wife is an omnipresence. No doubt, give credit to Anderson’s writing, but still, she manages to make us feel her presence in the story whether she’s onscreen or not. As for Hoffman, his collaborations with Anderson continue to bear fruit. This is his strongest work with him, giving Dodd a Jimmy Swaggart smarm/charm, a man who at once believes his own lies, but also immediately shows his frustrations and doubts in turn. The character is a gradual reveal throughout the film, and it is masterfully handled by him. Finally, to our centerpiece, Joaquin Phoenix, who is a raging bull from start to finish. He doesn’t just do a slight bit of character acting or put on the guise of character, he lives Freddy Quell. This is not De Niro, or even Day-Lewis, this is something else of which I'm not entirely sure what to call it. The way he hunches his gaunt frame, stands with his hands on his hips, squints, curls his upper lip, and then flies off the handle with such reckless abandon is beyond the call of simply “playing a character” or even “method acting”. Watching him as he beat himself in the jail scene with Hoffman was so arresting that I physically moved back in a subconscious effort to keep him from hurting himself and keeping such a direct and emotionally true scene as far away from me as possible. Playing this character the way he does, he breaks down Anderson’s ideas of Quell dealing with PTSD, and how his search for something greater to help him with the problems that seem to break him moment by moment, keep him under Dodd’s and The Cause’s spell.
Paul Thomas Anderson has given us a complicated piece of filmmaking. It’s more cerebral than its predecessor, but it’s not so mysterious or esoteric or internal that it cannot be understood. It really is simple and straightforward, but there’s no spoon-feeding, no tightly wrapped bow. This is filmmaking art at its finest, for it paints broad strokes that empty into broad questions, that never give you the easy answer you want. You search for those answers as you walk out of your screening into the streets as you make your way home. Yes, its second half may not be near as strong as its outset, but to follow its meandering path is in and of itself part of its wicked charm as it leads you to its “Slow Boat to China” ending. All at once it's a swirl of rage, colors, lyrical verbiage, music, ideas, great acting, and dense composition. Paul Thomas Anderson is again at the top of his game, a wizard like Oz, who has found the yellow brick road far ahead of us, and we, as an audience, are just getting there, still not sure what to ask for when we find the road’s end.

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