Billy Gray

The Master

In Movie Reviews on September 20, 2012 at 4:37 am

The Master is most electric during its opening scene. Jonny Greenwood’s ominous string score blasts to discordant life over a wide shot of a naval frigate’s crisp wake. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is among the seamen who cavort on a South Pacific beach. He introduces himself by explaining a fiery method of dealing with crabs—isolate the public lice on one testicle and set the hair on the other aflame—and murderously chopping up coconuts. He breaks to hump a voluptuous sand sculpture after leering at the lymph with his supple frame practically bent in two as if having Quasimodo’s wet dream. Director Paul Thomas Anderson briefly cuts to an officer masturbating into the ocean before it’s back on the ship, where Freddie drinks some sort of gasoline cocktail (back oh land he opts for paint thinner) before passing out on the mast tower.

Freddie is adrift and headed either for ruin or redemption. (A love interest back home in Massachusetts is Freddie’s millstone and Anderson’s MacGuffin.) But the sense of foreboding established in the first few minutes dissipates as Anderson finds the steady hand Freddie’s ingested Molotov cocktails—“poison”—render unattainable. After a series of failed odd jobs including mall photographer and farmhand—in a nod to Days of Heaven he kills a fellow worker and flees—he stows himself away on a yacht belonging to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an irrationally charismatic writer-philosopher-shaman, and filled with his family and admiring disciples. In one of many poised shots that soothe after the opening, the ship sails beneath the Golden Gate Bridge into an ochre sunset. Lancaster and his subtly domineering wife Peggy (Amy Adams) take Freddie under their wings as they cross the country and the Atlantic proselytizing their belief system, which is heavy on reincarnation, confession and purging of past trauma and roughly analogous to Scientology.

Anderson achieves a tenuous balance of rigidity and suppleness in The Master. It’s occasionally too mannered, with Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s generally gorgeous photography becoming as stilted as Freddie’s mall photographs, just with subjects who can handle unforgiving close-ups. Only Adams, who ultimately pulls off a brutal-dazed combination of Manson girl and Lady Macbeth, is sometimes as poised as a museum piece. Recalling the frenetic camerawork in Anderson’s Boogie Nights you marvel at how elegantly framed The Master is, even if you sometimes long for a ragged jolt. Greenwood, working with Anderson again after There Will Be Blood, also reins it in with a reclusive score to a film that could have used a more aggressive beat.

The only unease here is written on Phoenix’s face, a gnarled and knotted pantomime of barely suppressed psychic pain. It’s too much at times, especially when dialogue is indecipherable through his twisted mouth and his coiled walking posture resembles rigor mortis. Hoffman is the center, though hardly a cool customer. The closest The Master comes to a crowdpleasing moment, an “I drink your milkshake,” is when a red-faced Dodd caps an eloquent, if vacuous, defense of his belief system by calling a skeptic “pigfuck.” Phoneix has the showier role, but Hoffman’s is more versatile. He glides from shrink to carnival barker to jilted lover without any external acrobatics. Strong supporting turns from Laura Dern as a Philadelphian den mother to Dodd’s tribe and Jesse Plemons (Landry on Friday Night Lights) as his silently skeptical son make you wonder what might have happened if Phoenix and Hoffman were less magnetic in their scenery chewing.

The scope of the main performances unfortunately obscures the story. Narrative meanders and all but evaporates even as the Freddie-Lancaster dynamic tidily evolves—at one point the screen splits between their jail cells, with Freddie destroying his and Lancaster a picture of calm—and becomes a Freddie-Lancaster-Peggy triangle. The Master doesn’t collapse under its own artful weight but neglects conflict and thrust for a series of sharply observed but still opaque short films strung together as a confounding, fitfully mesmerizing, whole. This is Anderson’s sixth feature and third period piece but the first to approach too-mannered chamber piece status. Still, as hermetically sealed the attention to 1950s detail here can be, he nails the spiritual riptides of the era. It wasn’t just the Europeans who denounced traditional religion and sought fresh answers as a post-War balm. Truman’s prosperous, victorious Americans also experimented with new semi-secular mindsets and mind-enhancers.

Despite Freddie’s antics, Lancaster’s psycho-spiritual machinations and his followers’ paranoid allegiance, what’s missing here is a little bit of chaos. The last scene of Freddie breaking down, inter-coitus, a one-night stand with Dodd’s repetitive questionnaire and the girl’s timid-sad responses regains some of the opening’s magic tension. In Anderson’s hands, a cult is less fearsome and enigmatic than the prosaic action of cleaving a coconut or picking up a quick lay at the bar.

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