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Master, The (2012)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Master Is At Hand."
5 stars

Over the course of his first five films, Paul Thomas Anderson has evolved from being just another member of the post-Sundance/Tarantino era of the American independent film movement into not only one of the most audaciously talented filmmaker of his time but one who has earned the right to be discussed in the same breath as the all-time greats in the field. His projects are high-wire acts that combine elaborate set-pieces that are borderline operatic in ambition and execution, moments of dramatic introspection that are no less powerful even though they are so quiet that one can practically hear a pin drop during them, a emotional palette that runs the range from goofy comedy to astonishing depictions of rage and hurt (sometimes within the same scene), crackling dialogue, inspired musical choices and career-redefining performances from actors ranging from Daniel Day Lewis and Tom Cruise to Adam Sandler and Burt Reynolds. As a screenwriter, he has the rare capability to create narratives that so thoroughly defy the expectations of conventional filmmaking that long post-screening discussions and repeat viewings are pretty much a requirement and as a director, he pays homage to his idols (Scorsese, Ashby, Kubrick, Altman and the like) but instead of merely aping their past glories, he takes what he has learned from them and synthesizes their influences with his own prodigious talent and unique perspective into something altogether new and thrilling. There are very few things about the future of cinema that I would be comfortable in publicly predicting--after all, who would have guessed ten years ago that 3-D would be back with an unholy vengeance, Ben Affleck would be an acclaimed director and a black-and-white silent film from France would be the big winner at the last Academy Awards?--but there are two things about Anderson that I am willing to stake my reputation on; we will never see him going through the motions of some dumb and formulaic studio franchise film in exchange for a big paycheck (though the mind boggles at what he might do with a superhero spectacular) and whatever he does choose to make in the future, it will be unlike anything else being made at the time and moviegoers will be better off for it.

Needless to say, his latest film, "The Master," is no shrinking cinematic violet by a long shot. This is bold, ambitious filmmaking of a sort rarely seen these days, the kind that finds Anderson swinging for the fences in virtually every scene and knocking them out of the park more often than not. Drawing on themes that he has dealt with in many of his past efforts, Anderson has nevertheless crafted a story is utterly original and captivating throughout--there is hardly a scene that doesn't contain some kind of surprise for the viewer, be it an electrifying exchange of dialogue, an unexpected plot development or just a moment of startling visual beauty--and executed it with the effortless grace of a filmmaker who knows that he is a master, no pun intended, and is not shy about proving it at any given moment. Under normal circumstances, to call a film a masterpiece when it has only been out in the world for a couple of weeks would feel more like a desperate attempt to get quoted in the ads than an honest assessment of the movie as a whole but in this case, such a description sounds about right because I cannot easily think of another one adequately sums up everything that "The Master" has to offer.

The opening scenes follow a young sailor as he waits out the end of World War II more or less screwing around on a beach in the South Pacific with his fellow crew members and struggles to fit back into a post-war civilian existence. This man is Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and as we watch him bounce from job to job and woman to woman with no visible skills other than the ability to make bootleg alcohol out of any common household substances like a mixologist MacGyver, it quickly becomes evident that while the horrors of what he experienced in combat are no doubt playing a key part in sabotaging his efforts to rejoin society, he also suffers from plenty of long-standing emotional traumas that were clearly manifesting in himself long before he donned his uniform. In early 1950, after being forced on the run when his illicit hooch appears to be responsible for the death of a fellow migrant worker, Freddie happens upon a yacht that is about to disembark and stows away onboard before finally, mercifully passing out.

When he comes to, Freddie is summoned to the quarters of one Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a charismatic jack-of-all-trades who is the leader of a movement known as The Cause and who is sailing with a group of his followers from San Francisco to New York (via the Panama Canal). In essence, The Cause is a self-styled philosophy that suggests that humans are doomed to fail to live up to their potential because they are burdened by the weight of their previous trials and traumas and that only by confessing to and recording their darkest and most shameful misdeeds will they be able to purge the past and reset themselves into metaphysical perfection. As a further inducement, Dodd claims that adherents to The Cause who have been properly "processed" can heal themselves of physical ailments like leukemia and possibly even achieve the dream of world peace. Of course, what sounds like nirvana to a growing number of people sounds like malarkey to others and one critic is bold enough to decry Dodd as a charlatan and his movement as nothing more than a cult.

Impressed with Freddie--especially with his distilling abilities--Dodd invites him to join up with him and a group of followers as they travel to visit several well-to-do adherents to The Cause in an effort to solicit donations and attract new members. On some basic level, even someone as psychologically addled as Freddie recognizes that the whole thing is a sham but he is so desperate to fit in to some kind of family-like structure that he goes along for the ride. Although he throws himself into the program with vigor--he relentlessly pursues Dodd's increasingly strange "processing" exercises and is willing to slap down anyone who suggests that the teachings are nonsense (even going so far as to smack around Dodd's own son when he suggests that his father is just making things up as he goes along)--he never quite manages to fit in with the rest of the group and Dodd's closest advisers, especially his fiercely devoted wife Peggy (Amy Adams) implore him to cut Freddie loose before he can do real damage to The Cause.. However, in much the same way that Freddie is fascinated with Dodd despite recognizing the cracks in his facade, Dodd finds something compelling about the wild card that is Freddie and discovers that this is a flaw that cannot be easily dismissed by the tenets of The Cause.

Ever since the early reports regarding "The Master" suggested that it was inspired by the life and work of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the controversial Scientology movement, the film has faced an enormous amount of speculation from people wondering how closely it adhered to Hubbard and his teachings. (When an early attempt to put the film into production fell through, many speculated that it was the result of Scientology-related pressures.) Having seen the film, it cannot be denied that there are certain similarities between The Cause and Scientology but it is no more about Scientology than it is about any of the other similar groups that sprung up in the years immediately following World War II. At most, Scientology serves the same basic function here that porn, pudding and oil did, respectively, for "Boogie Nights," "Punch Drunk Love" and "There Will Be Blood"--it is a hook designed to grab viewers and guide them through the story until they get to what the film is really about. What Anderson is really interested in here is examining the strange dynamics that can occur when someone attempts to escape one dark and unfulfilling family situation by installing them into another one. This is a concept that Anderson has been exploring to one degree in virtually all his films but never with the intensity that he brings to it here with his unorthodox family unit with Dodd as the stern yet indulgent paterfamilias, Freddie as the unruly black sheep child who just cannot figure out how to fit in and Peggy as the seemingly prim, shy and retiring maternal figure who nevertheless shows herself to be fiercely determined to protect her loved ones no matter what the cost.

Some viewers may be disappointed at first to discover that Anderson isn't offering up a muckraking look at Scientology but there are so many other incredible things for them to experience as "The Master" goes on that few of them are likely to notice or care. For starters, this is one of those films that is so visually extraordinary that there are sights throughout that have been captured so exquisitely by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. that will simply take your breath away. (The film was shot in the rarely-used 70mm format and while it looks gorgeous at the more conventional 35mm, it is recommended that you catch it in 70mm if you are lucky enough to live near a theater that is still capable of showing it as it was meant to be seen). Of course,, all the other production details, from Jack Fisk's incredible set design to the alternately lovely, creepy and off-kilter score from Jonny Greenwood, are extraordinary as well. Then there are the scenes in which Anderson pulls out all the stops and creates moments that are quite simply unforgettable--of them, my two favorites are an extended bit at a reception for Dodd in which Freddie observes his new mentor drunkenly performing a song and fuses that with his sexual frustration in strange and haunting ways and the final confrontation between Dodd and Freddie, about which all I will say is that having seen it, moviegoers will never be able to listen to the old standard "Slow Boat to China" in the same way again.

Right from the start with 1996's "Hard Eight," Anderson has been able to lure an impressive high caliber of actors to his projects and has rewarded their faith in him by directing them to career-high performances and that streak continues here. "The Master" marks Joaquin Phoenix's first leading role since going through that strange public near-breakdown in which he pretended to chuck his acting career in order to become a rapper (a process chronicled in the singularly obnoxious mockumentary "I'm Still Here") and with that weirdness still relatively fresh in the minds of moviegoers, he clearly must have recognized that this might be his best and only shot of erasing that nonsense from our collective memories and reestablish himself as an enormously talented actor. To say that he pulls it off is a massive understatement because his work as Freddie is both the best of his career and the kind of performance that is destined to go down as a one-of-a-kind classic. Making this achievement all the more impressive is that even though Freddie may be the least ingratiating character to find himself at the center of any film since. . .well, since "There Will Be Blood"--a mass of jangled nerves and jagged edges whose fumbling attempts at reaching out to others are almost excruciating to watch--Phoenix makes him so compelling that even at his worst moments, it is impossible to take your eyes off of what he does here.

Matching Phoenix beat for beat is Anderson regular Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lancaster Dodd, a man who is clearly a charlatan but one who spins his spiels with such sinuous grace that one can be alternately amused and horrified by the way that he cajoles and browbeats his followers while still recognizing why presumably intelligent people would be so willing to open themselves up to someone like him both emotionally and financially. Watching the two of them going up against each other in a series of charged one-on-one encounters that make up the heart of the film is a truly intense experience and at the end of each one, the atmosphere they have created is so electric that some may need to resist the urger to applaud them as they might if it were a live theatrical experience. The biggest surprise on the performance front, however, comes from Amy Adams as Dodd's wife, a woman who is always willing to lend a hand to her husband and The Cause and who may in fact be the real power behind the movement. Adams has certainly shown herself to be a gifted actress in the last few years but nothing that she has done can prepare you with the ferocity she brings to her character here and by standing her girl-next-door persona with this hair-raising portrait of steely-eyed ambition should be just the thing to supercharge her already-strong career for the immediate future.

"The Master" is a startling cinematic experience from the first frame to the last but it may not be the easiest for some moviegoers to undertake because of its admittedly loose narrative structure and a final act that eschews the kind of dramatic fireworks that Anderson let loose with at the conclusions of "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood" for something a little quieter and more oblique. This lack of catharsis or anything that wraps the story up into a tidy package by explaining exactly how to interpret everything that has been shown may well impede the film in terms of box-office success but it is precisely because of those aspects, among others, that it will last and continue to be explored and analyzed long after today biggest hits have faded from memory. "The Master" is an instant classic and for anyone out there who has despaired over the loss of unique visions in the world of film in recent years, it is an absolute must-see and then some.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23660&reviewer=389
originally posted: 09/20/12 20:24:46
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 69th Venice Film Festival For more in the 69th Venice Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/12/13 Turner Great acting but terrible film. No sense of structure or where it wants to go. 1 stars
4/01/13 David Hollingsworth uncomfortable, eerie, but brilliant character study 5 stars
3/13/13 gc unintersetinga nd dull character study of a perverted alcoholic, not about L.Ron H. either 1 stars
2/19/13 Langano Watching paint dry would have been more interesting than this film 1 stars
10/02/12 scott maxwell real good movie 5 stars
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  14-Sep-2012 (R)
  DVD: 26-Feb-2013


  DVD: 26-Feb-2013

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