Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Recent Watches: The Master (2012)

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few filmmaker-novelist we have in the industry today. His best films, of which his last three are among, are deeply absorbing and unfold with a steady hand, drawling the viewer in more and more with every frame. “The Master” is as deeply involving and visually beautiful as “There Will Be Blood” or “Magnolia.”

It is not a film about Scientology, something I was a little disappointed about at first. While the film certainly discusses the politics and structure of the cult of personality, the film is more about a man deep in a crisis. “The Master” is probably one of the most honest depictions of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on-screen. We never see Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in combat but are clear it left a deep affect on him. He has a dysfunctional obsession with sex, is prone to anti-social behavior, and is deeply alcoholic. For about the first forty minutes of the film, Freddie is so constantly sloshed you can barely understand the garbled words that come out of his mouth. He looses his job as a photographer in a department store after antagonizing a customer, in one of the film’s oddest, funniest moments. His life is in shambles and he wanders from location to location, in a constant state of drunkenness. (To give you an idea of how intense his alcoholism is one of his favorite mixed drinks involves paint thinner.) He doesn’t find any sort of focus until stumbling onto the yacht of Lancaster Dodd, an author and budding cult leader. In the film’s first really fantastic moment, Freddie undergoes Dodd’s Processing procedure, a series of piercing, psychological question, frequently repeated, breaking down the target’s resistance. Dodd doesn’t flinch when Freddie casually admits to committing incest. Soon, as the questioning goes deeper, Freddie’s voice clears up for the first time in the entire film. For the first time, he seems focused and concentrating. Anderson’s camera never pulls away, focusing on the pained, concentrated face of Phoenix. It’s a brilliant moment. When the film calmly transfers to a flashback of Phoenix meeting the love of his life, it plays out so smoothly, like a beautiful piece of music.

After that, “The Master” is nothing short of totally absorbing. The film is a series of terse conversations between people. The main component of the Cause, the cult religion at the story’s center, is the belief in past lives and hypnotic sessions were the patient can relive those past lives. There is a tense confrontation between Dodd and a skeptic. Quell’s devotion to the Cause is all ready deeply entrench by this point as he immediately hunts the dissenter down and beats him. Quell threatens a publisher who criticizes the Cause’s new tome and even Dodd’s own son. All the while, Quell has never really stopped drinking and he seems to chase his booze intake with fanatical devotion to Dodd. (It’s Dodd Freddie is devoted to since he never states an opinion about the past life or hypnotism practices.) After being imprisoned, Dodd and Quell have an intense shouting match, further throwing doubt on Dodd’s credibility. Dodd’s wife has an eerie power over the entire cult, oozing just as much control as her husband. Freddie undergoes more of the Cause’s procedures, such as marching back and forth across a room, touching the walls and windows with his eyes closed, being shouted down by fellow cult members, or being forced to listen to vulgar pornography, read totally deadpan by Mrs. Dodd. Further cracks in Dodd’s shell show when shouting out a fan who questions him about a change in the group’s beliefs. There’s indelible, odd, sometimes off-putting moments like Dodd performing a song and dance in a room full of naked women, or Dodd receiving a mournful handjob from his wife, with her barking orders at him. The entire second half of the film is filled with brilliant, beautiful moments. Quell snapping Dodd’s picture or racing a motorcycle across a wide, flat, desert, falling asleep in a movie theater, or visiting the childhood home of his long-since moved and married sweetheart.

The movie ends on an ambiguous note. Honestly, the film could have ramble on pleasantly for a little while more. It is a snapshot of a man’s life, tracking the period where he was involved with a strange cult, going nowhere before or after. That’s what I think anyway.

The film is edited and paced so gracefully. I’ve found this to be Anderson’s greatest strength. You never feel the run time of his films, even though they frequently amble over two hours in length. “The Master” looks quite beautiful and it’s no shock that the film was shot for 70 millimeter. It has a rich, deep scope and I can’t wait to watch the film on Blu-Ray. The camera often watches patiently, in long takes, as the character’s talk or discuss. By no means is his camera stationary, as he also employs several long tracking shots. Jonny Greenwood’s musical score is sparse and experimental, a powerful mood piece that is still oddly listenable. The lack of nominations for the film in the cinematography or score category is major oversights on the Academy’s part. (Not to mention the lack of director or best picture nominations. Is it too late to wonder about a Scientology conspiracy?)

The performances are brilliant. Joaquin Phoenix’s fully commits to a man torn apart. Considering Phoenix’s often intense method acting, I kind of wonder if he wasn’t really boozing during some of filming. It’s a brave, powerful performance. Philip Seymour Hoffman fits the part of cult leader well. He employs his calm but commanding voice to good work. It’s sort of odd to think of the same guy playing the anxiety ridden pervert from “Happiness” and someone with as much natural charisma and authority as Lancaster Dodd. Amy Adams maybe gives my favorite performance in the film, as a woman who has just as much authority as her husband but doles it out in different ways. She’s a chilling presence, gazing ahead steely-eyed with total command. These three actors form the backbone of the movie with other performers, such as Ambyr Childers as Dodd’s daughter or Madisen Beaty as Joaquin’s lost love, being someone forced to the side, despite doing fine jobs.

So “The Masters” is a masterpiece. It’s a tightly wound film of pouring emotional and mental dysfunction, beautifully illustrated by an artist in his prime. P.T. Anderson, just let us know when you’re going to make a movie that isn’t goddamn brilliant. [9/10]

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