Saturday, September 22, 2012

Free Your Mind and the Rest Will Follow: THE MASTER

Paul Thomas Anderson opens The Master with a long, hypnotic shot of churning waters, a rippling disturbance in calm, blue ocean, the wake of an unseen ship. This image – an image repeated a few more times throughout the film – proves to be a fitting one for two reasons. First, the hypnotic nature of the opening shot leads us into a film about a deeply disturbed World War II veteran who falls into a cult in its early stages of creation and propagation, a kind of slow, enveloping hypnosis. Second, the shot signals a main thematic preoccupation of the film concerning the wake of psychological damage damaged people can leave behind them as they travel through life, a ripple of destruction a person can create, knowingly or unknowingly, for those who come in contact with him.

The two damaged men at the heart of this film are that disoriented veteran stumbling through the scar tissue of conflict in such a way that he can’t convincingly fit into post-war American society and the cult leader who takes him in and attempts to indoctrinate him into The Cause. Freddie, the veteran (Joaquin Phoenix), has emotional pain and exhibits erratic behavior, the roots of which stretch deep into his past. His family has a history of alcoholism and mental instability. As the film begins, we see him sitting on a beach, away from his fellow Navy crewmembers. He’s hacking at coconuts with a machete, molesting a sandcastle woman, and creating makeshift, surely poisonous, booze out of a suspect concoction of beverages and chemicals. Years pass, as do opportunities for jobs and relationships, until he meets Lancaster Dodd, The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Freddie, fleeing the latest group of people enraged at his drunken, inscrutable unpredictability, stows away about The Master’s ship. Lancaster knows a lost soul when he sees one. Freddie is, after all, a possible convert. Lancaster, a man who has a professorial snake-oil salesman charm, introduces himself matter-of-factly as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher…” This would be a laugh line if it weren’t so frightening how fully he believes it and how ready Freddie is to believe it too. Lancaster offers the poor man a place to stay in this growing family of followers so long as he agrees to help out and submit to emotionally distressing “processing,” absorbing, torturous New Age psychological interrogation. And so The Master has found himself a new subject.

Anderson’s film moves elliptically through time, tracking the relationship between The Master and Freddie as the cult grows in power and is on the receiving end of heated questions from contentious outsiders and brave insiders alike. Vivid supporting characters include Dodd’s sharp-tongued, deceptively matronly wife (Amy Adams), supportive son-in-law (Rami Malek) and disillusioned son (Jesse Plemons), as well as several followers and defenders (including a small role for the always wonderful Laura Dern). But Anderson is not interested in simply charting the rise of this fringe group loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard’s early-1950’s group that became Scientology. Though the film has the epic sweep of Anderson’s Boogie Nights or Magnolia, sprawling, virtuosic period pieces, it plays out with the squirmy, uncomfortable intimacy of his ugly-beautiful introverted rom com (of sorts) Punch Drunk Love.

This is what he was doing in his last film, the instantly, toweringly essential There Will Be Blood, but here he’s working with a narrower emotional range. It doesn’t climb to the same emotional heights and precise blending of intimate and epic. This is an epic of mental interiors. The production design from David Crank and Jack Fisk captures the time and place with a precision that appears effortless and seamless. Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography, in rich, stunning, and rare 65mm, sketches detailed shots that play out in long, meticulously composed takes with locked down angles that occasionally move with a sudden, fluid force. This is an attractively rendered production of emotional ugliness with a focus on both the high minded philosophy and psychology behind these men and the base instincts, dirty jokes and bodily functions that mark them as ultimately only human. Anderson marshals considerable craftsmanship in his capturing of incredible performances from two clashing characters who appear to be complete opposites, but are nonetheless continually drawn together by their shared perplexing, fascinating, mesmerizing intensity of opacity.

Phoenix has a twisted, sickly demeanor here, a way of standing half-hunched, moving with a drunken, hesitantly feral quality to his gait. He twists his face into a confused crumple of painful-looking wrinkles and glowering, deep, penetrating stares. He’s a man burying himself in his physicality. Hoffman, in contrast, has the gregarious regal comportment of a man completely sure in his own certitude. Even when directly confronted about his fanciful dogma that one character close to him admits is “[made up] as he goes along,” he’s fiercely defensive, cruel even to those who admire him the most. It’s easy to see him as a deluded monster, but Anderson and Hoffman create a far more sympathetic portrait than mere damnation. Without exploring this man’s background, we can see what draws people in and what is utterly convincing about his methodology. He pulls in seekers, those yearning for purpose, and gives them the comfort of certainty, no matter the psychological cost.

This is a strong work of filmmaking, a work in which each and every aspect is fine tuned and polished to perfection. But unlike Anderson’s earlier films, exuberant, inviting works, even at their most difficult or foreboding, the film is so perfectly closed off, a dense psychological thicket of characterization and detail. Perhaps the key image is one that finds Freddie and Lancaster in neighboring jail cells, framed with a barred window between them and a wall of bars between them and the camera. Freddie thrashes against the confinement. Lancaster sits patiently, stewing in his anger. Throughout the film, despite their connection, they’re unable to ever truly reach each other and we in the audience can only watch from a distance as they struggle to get there no matter the cost to those in their wake.

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