Review: The Master

In a sequence that will inspire endless undergraduate theses, Joaquin Phoenix serves as a photographer before falling under the spell of “The Master.”

Every couple of years, an art-house film comes out that becomes more than just an art-house film. It turns into a symbol: the embodiment of independent (intellectual, high-art, whatever word you want to use) cinema. And as such, it transforms further into a battleground – any opinion posited becomes a line in the sand. Didn’t like it? You just “don’t get it.” Think it’s great? You’re just afraid of admitting it doesn’t make sense. Philistine! Snob! Michael Bay moron! Von Trier apologist!

These critical arguments sometimes have the power to shift the entire film world – I’m thinking of “Bonnie and Clyde” here – but in other cases, like the “controversy” surrounding P.T. Anderson’s “The Master,” the blogging community comes off like a bunch of little kids playing with sandcastles on the beach, perpetually building up and tearing down artificial walls just for the hell of it.

That’s one reason I’ve hemmed and hawed for a week over writing this review. I looked around and saw that writing about “The Master” seemed to require some sort of principled stand: Anderson is a genius!! A fraud!! The most brilliant filmmaker of the century!! Purposefully obtuse!! Quite frankly, I’m not interested in taking a side in such an ultimately pointless argument (at the moment, anyway). I just want to talk about “The Master” and try to make some sense out a film that seems to revel in being elusive.

That’s not just a flippant summary, either: elusiveness is a prominent theme in the imagery of “The Master.” From its very first shot, a recurring view of waves radiating out into nothingness in the wake of a ship, “The Master” has temporality and intangibility on its mind: its characters are constantly grasping out for a stable, logical reality that very well may not exist. Our protagonist, a drifting WWII veteran/possibly disturbed mental case Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), spends most of his post-war life concocting semi-poisonous homemade booze, augmenting (or perhaps justifying) his addled state of mind with alcoholism. When he manages to procure a job, Freddie takes portraits as a department store photographer – arranging people, creating perfect little constructed pieces of life. But Freddie’s self-destructiveness kicks in, unable to handle this orderliness.

In his chaotic wanderings, Freddie eventually falls in with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the charismatic leader of a peculiar, cult-ish group that, as you all probably know by now, has a certain resemblance to Scientology. Dodd preaches a gospel of healing based on meditation, mental time travel and concentrated introspection – a jumble of kooky spiritualism and philosophy that is of course completely scientifically unsound. Yet “the Master” (as Dodd’s followers call him) has a confidence in both himself and others that Freddie clearly finds alluring. Dodd’s teachings, with its talk of reincarnation and everlasting spirits, promises a constancy of self and purpose that Freddie is totally lacking. Meanwhile, Dodd himself seems to see an opportunity in Freddie: a formless soul, looking to be made whole, for Dodd to shape as he pleases.

And so Dodd becomes a surrogate father figure for Freddie, welcoming him into the community of “The Cause” and doting on the hot-tempered veteran almost more than he does on his own family. Perhaps sensing a threat or perhaps simply not liking Freddie, the members of the Dodd clan each try to push him out in their own manner: Dodd’s ambivalent son casts doubt on his own father’s teachings; his daughter and son-in-law prey on Freddie’s powerful sexual urges; and his domineering wife (an unexpectedly, subtly terrifying Amy Adams) gingerly pulls on the hooks she has clearly spent years sinking into her husband’s weak spots.

Ultimately, none of this is even truly necessary; as Anderson has spent his entire career repeating (particularly in “Magnolia” and “There Will Be Blood”), a father-son relationship can simultaneously repel two men away from each other at the same time that it bonds them. Freddie is fiercely loyal to Dodd; indeed, the film more than strongly hints at some homosexual urgings (in one scene, as Dodd waltzes with another member of the Cause, Freddie appears to hallucinate all the women in the crowded room as being naked; yet Dodd stays the center of his attention). Yet at the same time, Dodd’s methods frustrate and confound him. Painful memories from his past resurface, sending his world into even further disarray, and despite some debatable breakthroughs in treatment, Freddie doesn’t really seem to be getting any healthier. Dodd may be well-intentioned, but it’s unclear whether he even sees Freddie quite straight: in their final meeting, after Freddie has briefly fled the Cause, one gets the distinct impression that the two men are simply talking past each other, neither one really able to understand the other. In the end, Dodd’s words are just that: he lacks the true gestures of love and kindness that might help Freddie make sense of his haze of impulses and desires.

In keeping with the film’s themes of superficial self-control and underlying chaos, Anderson keeps a paradoxically strict control over every frame: Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s cinematography is impeccably symmetrical, and the editing has a peculiar rhythm to it, just like Jonny Greenwood’s discordant but woozily captivating score. Such precision overlaying a completely jumbled narrative has a deeply, maddeningly uncanny effect: it’s as if Anderson, like Dodd, is attempting (not entirely successfully) to impose form on to formlessness.

Two elements that take a definite shape, however, are Phoenix and Hoffman, who both turn in astounding performances. We could expect this kind of assured, commanding performance from Hoffman, but it’s a sign of how far astray Phoenix has wandered in recent years that despite the considerable talent he has displayed in the past, I was totally taken aback by how convincing he is here. Part Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” part abused puppy, Freddie is profoundly engrossing and repugnant at the same time. No matter how abstract or perplexing the film becomes at times, the scenes between these two man are unarguable high points.

In narrative terms, “The Master” is unsatisfying; emotionally, it is even more coldly detached and disdainful than “There Will Be Blood,” a film whose main character went around saying things like “I look at people and I see nothing worth liking.” As a viewing experience it is more distressful and agonizing that any number of self-proclaimed horror films. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle with one piece missing. Pass a value judgment on that if you dare, but be forewarned: for every argument there is an equal and opposite rebuttal.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: Let’s not get into star ratings, but “The Master” is 100% worth seeing and debating.

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