Hopelessly Inquisitive – “The Master” Review

The latest from writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson is a beguiling trip through post-WWII America. It’s also one of the more difficult films to characterize. There are, of course, basic elements that can easily be discussed: plot, acting, photography. Then there is the construction and the ultimate intent of the picture which is elusive due to the anthropological nature of the story. Even attempting to explain what makes it difficult to explain is problematic. That said, and pleasantly perplexing feelings aside, the film is clearly a brilliant and major achievement on many levels.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell. Freddie is a Navy veteran struggling to assimilate to civilian life. Although, it doesn’t seem like he fit in before the war either. He bounces from job to job. He consumes alcohol constantly and appears to live on the precipice of a nervous breakdown and/or violent outburst. Joaquin plays him with a lumbering stride, a contorted mug, and mad eyes filled with infinite sadness. He’s a lost puppy, and you’re unsure whether or not he’ll bite. Joaquin is astonishing in the role. It’s impossible to know where Freddie begins and Joaquin ends. He more than disappears, he transcends. I don’t say this lightly or often, but the performance belongs right up there with the best from Robert De Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s just that fucking good.

Freddie stumbles across Lancaster Dodd and the film’s central relationship takes shape. Dodd, played by the impressive Philip Seymour Hoffman, is a renaissance man starting his own religious group, “The Cause,” which has similarities to Scientology. Dodd decides to use Freddie as a case study and personal moonshine supplier and Freddie obliges. Eventually Freddie becomes a protégé and enforcer for “The Cause.” The film then becomes a tug-of-war for Freddie’s soul while Lancaster continues to hone his methods.

One of Dodd’s techniques is “informal processing”. It’s a simple enough Q&A session that works almost like hypnosis. The back and forth between Lancaster and Freddie during his session is as good as cinema gets. It’s just two amazing actors talking in one small room and it could not be more riveting.

Like There Will Be Blood and Punch-Drunk Love, the sights and sounds are meant to be outward projections of the main characters inner psyche. It is manifest in a flowing, dream-like presentation that also maintains Anderson’s focused and exacting style. This also entails a cacophonous sound design and a similarly inharmonious and brilliant score from Jonny Greenwood. The camera however is never handheld or shaky. The shots are crisp and beautifully composed with a lot of emphasis on depth of field. These elements can seem at odds with each other but such is the point with two looming and combustible main characters.

It’s not clear if Lancaster believes his bullshit or not. The outside world only intervenes in a few scenes leaving the audience as isolated as the characters. As Lancaster’s wife Peggy, Amy Adams has a few key scenes and behavioral shifts that offer some clues. But the movie is not really goal oriented. Instead, it dives into the deep end of human behavior, sexuality, and dissatisfaction. What will we believe to feel whole? Who will we follow? And why does it matter?

Paul Thomas Anderson borrows a few shots and ideas from his various influences, as well as his own filmography, and he still managed to craft a staggeringly original piece of cinema. It’s not easily explained, but it’s not easily forgotten either.

(I’ve discussed it before, but it should be noted. The film was shot on 65mm film stock, a true rarity, and is being projected a few places in 70mm. I was lucky enough to see it this way and I cannot recommend this experience enough. Truly stunning visuals.)

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11 responses to “Hopelessly Inquisitive – “The Master” Review

  1. I agree although I think you liked it more than I did. I don’t think it’s too ambigous but I’m still trying to figure out what PTA is trying to say.

  2. I loved the film! I was kind of bummed when the credits rolled and everyone else in the theater grumbled and complained about how “boring” the movie seemed or how they didn’t understand it or it was “too long”. Really? REALLY?! Most of Anderson’s movies tend to be long and not the most action-packed pieces of work, so I don’t know what they were expecting. The trailer doesn’t even make it look like a very straight forward or exciting movie so….makes me wonder why these people even go to movies – to have a thought-provoking, entertaining experience that makes them leave with new questions and ideas OR to have a story spoon-fed to them? Unfortunately, most people I know who’ve seen this are the latter. Anyway, done ranting, nice review, sir!

  3. I was never bored and it was not too long at all, but I can actually understand walking away with strange feelings. The film doesn’t have your typical catharsis, and therefore leaves people scratching their heads.

    So on one hand I get where some people are coming from. On the other, I don’t get how this then manifests into negative feelings. I love that it doesn’t fit neatly into a box. I can’t get being upset by that.

    Anyways. Thanks for the kind words.

  4. I’m completely OK with a film not “wrapping up,” that is not my issue with this film. Ultimately I didn’t hate it and it’s hard to even put into words what was unsatisfying to me. Basically I loved There Will Be Blood but tangibly knew when I was watching it that I felt like it was testing my limits of… whatever PTA was “progressing” towards. In this film, for me personally, he stepped past that into even more esoteric territory. This felt to me like him becoming more Malick-like and that is not a positive for me personally. The film is ambitious and beautiful with some amazing performances but I just was not satisfied. It left me feeling empty and not in an interesting self examination way, in a “I just watched that and simply don’t know how to feel about it way. It left me with zero desire to see again, which is not what a PTA film usually does for me. I’m ready for PTA to give me a breather from this progression in his style and give me another film along the lines of Magnolia… shallow of me I know.

  5. I understand the disconnect, but I loved it.

    I think it’s less esoteric and more provoking. There isn’t some mystery to solve just what feeling you take away from it.

  6. That is precisely the problem for me, the feeling I took away from it was a bland one. I wasn’t moved, I didn’t learn anything and I didn’t feel particularly engaged by it. I felt as though I was experiencing maybe the middle 3rd of someone else’s story without the proper context by which to understand it or relate to it. Again, I didn’t hate it, but in spite of some pretty brilliant performances it is most definitely the least memorable of his films for me. In the 2 1/2 months since I saw the only times I have thought about it at all have been when I was on this blog twice and once when a friend asked if I had seen it. That is the only PTA movie I have ever had disappear from my consciousness so thoroughly.

  7. Can’t win them all I guess?

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