Paul Thomas Anderson has crafted a work that both elates me and condemns me. I’ll explain.
Anderson is, unquestionably, the most seminal figure in my current appreciation of cinema. For years, he’s steadily climbed the echelon of America’s great directors, and with 2007’s exclamation-point of a film in “There Will Be Blood”, in my eyes, he perched himself at the top. I’m as passionate and rapturous about Anderson as I am about any other artistic figure, well, ever.
Though his films vary from three-hour epics about the ’70s adult-film industry, to focused explorations of Reno gamblers, to idiosyncratic, quietly haunting Adam Sandler comedies, there’s a very clear thematic through-line, connecting all of his work — wounded souls finding compassion in makeshift families. His new work, “The Master”, has arrived with the sort of fervent anticipation and giddy buzz reserved for the biggest of cinematic heavyweights. Perhaps, because it’s up there.
“The Master” is massive. There’s no getting around that. Filmed with the 65mm cameras used for the likes of big-budget, classic screen-epics “Lawrence of Arabia” and “2001: A Space Odyssey”, it’s a film with impossibly gorgeous sights and eerily evocative lighting and color-schemes.
And what does Anderson (henceforth, “PTA”) choose to point these great, attentive tools at? A face. But not a typical face, alas: Joaquin Phoenix’s contorted mannerisms would be striking even if they weren’t in the wake of his faux-public-meltdown three years back.
Phoenix delivers what surely will go down as 2012’s finest performance, navigating us through a dense labyrinth of tics and twitches. The end result is more than a character, it’s an enduring image, one that will gnaw away at your psyche as it has mine. He plays Freddie Quell, a man who makes absolutely no effort to hide his animalistic urges.
To call him odd is to understate the matter. In post-WWII California, he’s one of many, many soldiers who has emerged as deeply disturbed and erratic — in particular, Freddie is a sex addict, a man whose slurred speech lays bare his innermost feelings, and one with an odd talent for making potent alcohol out of the oddest ingredients — paint thinner, rocket fuel, and rubbing alcohol included. But after one of these concoctions kills a co-worker, Freddie flees, eventually stowing aboard a wealthy steam-liner.
Aboard is a self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher [..] and deeply inquisitive man”, Lancaster Dodd. Played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a totally immersive, transcendent work that would anchor any other film, Dodd is actually something of a supporting player in “The Master”, despite being the title character.
Dodd, alongside his devoted wife Peggy (Amy Adams, who masterfully subverts her cheery, matriarchal image to play a two-faced control freak), is in the throes of creating a spiritual movement called “The Cause”. The exact specifics of the Cause don’t matter much, just that it allegedly holds the secret to unlocking past lives and experiences, in order to enrich our own. What matters is that Dodd takes Freddie under his wing, creating a relationship with both tense undertones and a certain odd perversity.
In one scene, Dodd, to “break” Freddie into the Cause, asks a series of repeating questions that progress from innocuous to downright dangerous. It’s a little self-contained work of absolutely flaming urgency, as riveting as any scene in any film in any year. And in the end, it really encapsulates all that I treasure in “The Master” — technical mastery, layered thematic subtext, and the absolutely mad eyes of an actor who, like the Phoenix, has risen again.
It’s been said that this is a bold work of tonal & paced originality, but to say this implies a rhythm that runs through it all. I’m not sure PTA has one. The film churns along like a broken staccato pattern whose elements are stripped as it progresses. We begin with a firm grasp on narrative and character, yet exit the theater with nothing but questions.
I have stated that “The Master” elates and condemns me. But how can it possibly comment on me? Because, perhaps behind the iron curtain, “The Master” is PTA’s reflection on the role of the filmmaker in our lives — just like his Lancaster Dodd, they’re eager, skilled charlatans who twist our realities and turn our emotions. But it cannot be done without consent, not without the Freddies of the world who seek escape from the demons of the past and the worries of the future. Whether escape is sought in a bottle’s bottom or in a theater’s top row, it’s all the same. “The Master” explores why we need others — be it an institution or a man — to fulfill ourselves. Like the best of novels, there’s so much more to discover and so many more nuances to pick up, making repeat visits just as essential as the first. But as of this writing, this is the American film of the year. A