Monday, September 24, 2012

Blogorium Review: The Master

  "Even for Paul Thomas Anderson, that was different."

 That was friend of the Blogorium and occasional contributor Neil's immediate reaction after The Master cut to credits, and it's a fair assessment. The Master doesn't conform to a "conventional" narrative, in that it's beginning, middle, and end are what would traditionally be considered the "middle" of the story. We meet Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) at the tail end of his service in the Pacific front of World War II, and follow him as he drifts into the life of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a scientist, author, and guru of "The Cause," Dodd's movement to bring humanity to a new level of evolution by solving traumas of lives past. And, on the other end, we see the end of that quixotic attempt by Dodd to make Quell his protege, his triumph in practice. Nothing more, nothing less.

 Which is not to say that there isn't plenty of story in The Master, but it can leave on feeling as though they've only seen part of a film. It makes the narrative arc of There Will Be Blood seem downright thorough by comparison, so I understand the critical divide about The Master. Much of the misgivings are softened by the exceptional performances by Hoffman and Phoenix, who reminds us why his retreat from the public eye surrounding I'm Still Here robbed audiences of any number of great performances.

 I hesitated to mention this, because using Freudian analysis of film is overdone to the point of being trite (the Cap'n was in no less than three classes that insisted on using psychoanalysis to dissect horror and film noir) but in the case of The Master it might help answer a few questions I overheard leaving the theatre.

 If The Master is "about" anything in particular (and there were certainly a number of people asking that), one could read the film as an exploration of the Ego unsuccessfully taming the Id, using the backdrop of a familiar religious movement without calling it that. It's important to point out that The Master is not about Scientology, although people will certainly find parallels to draw between "The Cause" and Dianetics. The film is less about what Lancaster Dodd is doing than his mission to "civilize" Freddie Quell, to rid him of his "animal" instincts and prove (to himself, if no one else) that "The Cause" works.

 Joaquin Phoenix, as Freddie Quell, is the embodiment of the Id: he is a creature devoted entirely to fulfilling his instincts, specifically sexual. He spends much of the film in pursuit of women, but also in a semi-drunken stupor, based almost exclusively on alcoholic concotions he makes from whatever he can find (bomb fuel, mouth cleaner, rubbing alcohol). Quell and Dodd bond after the former drunkenly stows away on the latter's boat and wakes up the next morning to discover he asked "The Master" to hire him for any work needed. In addition to taking a liking to his hodgepodge liquor, Dodd is fascinated by the uninhibited Quell, who acts entirely according to his desires. Even his body language - sloped shoulders, shambling gait, face pinched with rage - evoke less of a man and more of the Freudian Id.

 The Master is ostensibly told from Freddie's perspective, and frequently shifts into what he is seeing or thinking (no more apparent than the scene where Dodd is singing "I'll Never Go a Roving").  In that case, it's fair to wonder how much of what happens in The Master actually happens (the ending of the film in particular), but most of it seems to be concerned with Quell's stubborn indifference to being "pygmalioned" (probably not a real word) by the spiritual guru. Their first "processing" interview is an acting tour de force, as Quell realizes the game Dodd is playing and matches him beat for beat. As The Master progresses, it becomes unclear who has the stronger effect on the other, and emotional manipulation fades away into mutual regret.

 In fact, the Ego (Dodd) might continue to "rehabilitate" the Id (Quell) if not for the Super Ego, in this case the members of his family who make up the core of "The Cause": his wife Peggy Dodd (Amy Adams), daughter  Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), and son-in-law Clark (Rami Malek). Each offers their reason why Freddie is undermining Lancaster's goal, but it may be Peggy - who knows of her husband's philandering ways - who makes the strongest case that Quell cannot be tamed. As the most devoted supporter of "The Cause," Peggy sees clearly that her husband leans too heavily towards his baser tendencies, and draws him back from the Id.

 It isn't merely that Freddie is almost always drunk or behaving lustily, but also that in his misguided attempts to be loyal to Dodd (who took him in), he often acts out violently against anyone who criticizes "The Cause," including Dodd's own son, Val (Jesse Plemons). He viciously attacks a man who challenges "The Master" during a session, assaults police officers who come to arrest Dodd after it's revealed the yacht was stolen, and savages Dodd's former editor (Kevin J. O'Connor) after the release of The Split Saber, Lancaster's second "gift to Homo Sapiens." Much to the chagrin of the Dodd family, Freddie refuses (or is unable) to separate his immediate reactions from what's best to promote the movement.

 Mind you, this is one possible reading of The Master. There are others, including one it has in common with Anderson's other films: the idea of atypical families, particularly fathers and sons (and it's apparent that in The Master, like There Will Be Blood, that the father figure is less concerned with his immediate family than that of an adopted outcast). There are a number of obvious religious parallels, beyond the analogies to Scientology: one could read the final scene between Freddie and Lancaster as an inversion of the "Prodigal Son" parable, if what happens between them even really took place at all (it follows a certain dream logic consistent with Quell's imagination). There's a clear distinction made between WWII veterans who suffered psychological trauma during the war and the rest of society, who move on towards their "brave new world," that bears noting. It clearly plays into Freddie's psychological state throughout the film, whether he behaves on impulse or not.

 And so The Master is atypical, narratively at least, but not without plenty of substance to be drawn from its unbalanced structure. It's also a beautifully shot film, with a disconcerting score by Jonny Greenwood counterbalanced with jazz standards (one of which certainly helps the Id / Ego comparison, Ella Fitzgerald performing "Get Thee Behind Me Satan"). The acting is going to bring you in and keep you there, even if the narrative seems disjointed at times. Hoffman, Phoenix, Adams, and even a surprise turn from Laura Dern - who I had no idea was in the film - are at the top of their game, and the scenes with Dodd and Quell crackle with electricity. By the time "The Master" explains to Freddie that "if we meet again in the next life, you will be my sworn enemy and I will show you no mercy," it's hard to argue that you're seeing anything less than stellar acting at work.

 So I don't mind if it isn't as consistent as There Will Be Blood, or as tied together as Boogie Nights. It's emotional core is a bit like Punch-Drunk Love, which is to say tricky to settle into at first but ultimately rewarding. I can see disappointment, even with the elevate expectations that a Paul Thomas Anderson film invariably brings, but I disagree that there's no "there" there. There's plenty to The Master, it's just packaged differently.

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