Thursday, September 27, 2012


There is a fine line between mocking something by intentionally invoking that object of scorn and unintentionally becoming that very thing.  As an observer, it can be even harder to discern the difference between the two.  Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master could possibly be the most opaque and difficult film to dissect in American cinema this year.  Every one of its virtues, of which there are many, in any other context could be one of its greatest failures.  

In an era where sequels flood the multiplex and unnecessary remakes have become the standard over original material, The Master definitely stands alone as a unique and singular film experience.  However, in its originality it also stands as a film that seems almost indecipherable, almost as if it doesn't care to be discovered in any way.  It leaves me asking the question, "Is this too brilliant for me to understand or is it all just nonsense?"

One of the most basic joys of the cinema is in the basic sense of discovery that a film can provide.  Films that hold our hands can often feel pandering because they remove that basic joy: The pleasure of discovering something for yourself.  The same is true in the opposite direction; The Master seems to be presenting the director's discovery rather than guiding the audience towards his or her own.  Yet, maybe that is the point.  Could it be that this film is a direct exercise in what it feels like to be part of a cult?  

The film's story of Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), a drunken, misogynistic, violent, and brash ex-sailor, focuses around the notion of cult and the control that religion can wield in the hands of the charismatic and power-hungry.  When Freddie accidentally becomes a member of The Cause, a religious cult led by the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his nature and past is called into question, as he grows deeper and deeper into their midst.

The Cause's primary belief is rooted in the idea of shared past lives and learning to shed the sins of the past.  Through a ritual similar to hypnosis, Dodd transports his subjects back into their previous lives and allows them to come to terms with their full existence.  When Freddie and Dodd first meet, Dodd expresses to him that he feels as if they've met before in a past life.  This moment underscores the essential tension that is at the heart of The Master, as Freddie's entire existence is comprised of the very impulses that Dodd has sought to shed himself of, as if Freddie is a pure amalgamation of all of Dodd's previous lives' indulgences.

Phoenix and Hoffman are brilliant in their roles and provide a tangible tension and, at times, homoeroticism to their performances.  A fifteen-minute scene that features Hoffman's Dodd questioning Phoenix's Freddie as he attempts not to blink is riveting and will challenge its audience to share in Freddie's unwavering gaze.  When these two veteran actors are allowed to share the screen The Master soars.  Phoenix's face is constantly in close-up to capture every ounce of raw emotion he can conjure, aided by the incredible ability of The Master's 70mm print to push the limits of what can be done with a close-up.

It is immediately apparent that The Cause is a bunch of nonsense conjured by Dodd, a realization that Freddie wrestles with in different ways that are never clearly articulated.  Scenes transition between each other with little or no context, a problem that undermines the focus of the film's narrative and character arcs.  What The Master presents are a number of brilliant singular scenes that never quite connect into one concrete idea.

The level of craft and care that went into Paul Thomas Anderson's (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood) film is apparent, but outside of its brilliant visual construction and engaging performances it is hard to fully grasp what he is trying to say here.  Is the film pretentious or mocking pretentious notions?  Is it trying to comment on how cults like The Cause are often built on nonsense or is it just nonsense itself?  I would like to give Anderson more credit after loving all of his previous work, but sometimes a film can be full of incredible ideas that are impossible to decipher fully.

I could come up with a series of conjectures on the film's meaning and significance but they would be just as hollow as the notions of The Cause, and maybe that's exactly the point of The Master.  It's own opacity has me scrambling to dig deeper, like a cult-member searching for meaning.  Does this make the film good?  I'm not sure, but difficult and unique seem fitting enough descriptors to me.

3 / 4 Reels


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