A sordid tale, beautifully told
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, September 21, 2012
“The Master” opens on a shot of swirling turquoise water, the roiling backwash of an unseen boat.
It’s a dazzling, super-saturated image that recurs throughout Paul Thomas Anderson’s film and serves as a fitting leitmotif, not only for the social and emotional churn that the movie seeks to represent, but also for the psychic state of the audience itself. Viewers will either find themselves afloat on the film’s near-ecstatic embrace of filmmaking technique and bravura acting or drowning in a vortex of maddeningly opaque, unresolved tensions.
From that mesmerizing aquatic froth that sets up the meditative subtext of “The Master,” Anderson travels to Guam during the final days of World War II, where a sailor named Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) is cavorting with his buddies in a primitive male paradise -- hacking away at coconuts, simulating sex with a female-shaped sand sculpture and reverting to a state of nature that is almost apelike in its grunting, rutting brutishness.
Freddie and his mates return to an America whose new ethos of gumption and optimism feels at odds with the carnage they’ve just witnessed. After trying to make a living as a photographer in a swank department store (the epitome of postwar everything-is-fineism), Freddie hits the road, bootlegging an alcoholic concoction distilled from paint thinner, pursuing furtively compulsive sexual encounters and finally stowing away, drunk, on a party boat moored at a San Francisco dock.
The boat turns out to belong to Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who, upon meeting Freddie the next morning, describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher.” Seeing that Freddie has been on a bender, he also announces that the younger man is “aberrated,” a disjointed state of being that Lancaster seeks to mend by way of his self-styled religion, the Cause. While the boat bobs its way from Northern California through the Panama Canal to New York, Lancaster will introduce Freddie to the tenets of past lives, time travel and unconscious drives that comprise the Cause’s core beliefs. They enter an alternately symbiotic and dramatically dysfunctional relationship, observed from an intimate distance by Lancaster’s all-seeing wife, Peggy (Amy Adams).
One of the reasons “The Master” has been awaited so breathlessly in recent months is because Anderson was rumored to be basing much of Lancaster’s character on L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Similarities are there, but “The Master” owes its psychological underpinnings less to Hubbard’s Dianetics than to Hegelian dialectics, whereby the power dynamics between masters and slaves promise self-awareness but also an existential fight to the death.
Some of the most compelling scenes in “The Master” feature Lancaster trying to “break” the ungovernable and almost feral Freddie, forcing him to submit to a grueling “processing” session that resembles an interrogation and overseeing a bizarre conditioning exercise in which Freddie runs back and forth across a room touching the wall. But soon it becomes clear that Freddie possesses his own hold over Lancaster, whether it’s the explosive violence with which he defends the Cause against naysayers or that small-batch firewater he continues to cook up, to Lancaster’s mischievous delight.
Hoffman’s leonine roar of “Oh, God” when he takes a quaff of Freddie’s brew is just one of myriad pleasures to be had in “The Master,” whose title might as well refer to Hoffman himself as the apotheosis of the voracious energy and supreme control that make for great screen acting. Watching Hoffman and Phoenix go toe to toe reveals two actors at the pinnacle of their respective powers -- Hoffman all florid brio and Hemingway-esque bluster, Phoenix contorting his face into the rictus version of an Elvis snarl, his body hunched into a simian silhouette that seeks as desperately to be aligned with the Cause’s civilizing forces as it refuses to straighten out.
Combined with a surprising -- in one scene even shocking -- turn from Adams as the story’s prim Lady Macbeth, “The Master” presents viewers with one of the most potent triads in recent film memory, given all the more taut dynamism by Jonny Greenwood’s percussive score as well as Anderson’s bold composition and use of 65mm film stock, which gives the production a suitably ’50s-style sense of crispness and size. (AFI’s Silver Theatre and Cultural Center is one of the few venues where audiences can see “The Master” projected in 70mm.)
In fact, there’s so much weirdness and beauty in “The Master” -- from the lyrical shot of a light-festooned boat sailing into an unknown night to a surreal dream sequence of a party attended by naked women and fully clothed men -- that it takes awhile for the notion to sink in that so much acting talent and cinematic artistry has been put to the service of such puny, insufferable characters.
Anderson’s last film, “There Will Be Blood,” ended with a brilliant (and admittedly controversial) coda, in which Daniel Day-Lewis’s power-hungry oil prospector battled it out with a young evangelical preacher played by Paul Dano, whose character anticipated the convergence of religion, celebrity and money that would come to define a recurring strain of the American character.
“The Master” was ideally situated to pick up on those forces, elaborating on the themes Anderson so tantalizingly suggested in the previous film -- just as Lancaster’s nascent cult and its mostly middle-aged, female adherents present an inviting opportunity to plumb the group dynamics that gave the director’s 1997 “Boogie Nights” and 1999 “Magnolia” such psychological density and tender pathos. But instead of using Lancaster and Freddie as a way to frame a larger idea, he uses epic tone and scale to frame what’s essentially the pathetic, unrequited love story between a megalomaniacal crank and a lecherous drunk.
By bringing so much thought, verve and visual poetry to bear on two neurotics acting out -- rather than on the larger cultural story they anticipate and embody -- “The Master” turns out to be more of a self-defeating whimper than the big, important bang it could have been. There’s no doubt that Anderson, now with six films under his belt, is a master of the medium: His sheer eloquence with cinematic grammar, from the vein-popping close-ups of his two lead actors to the expansive desert tableaux of the film’s climactic scenes, confirms that. The deeper question -- and one viewers will have to answer for themselves -- is whether the filmmaker’s ambition and skill in this case leave us feeling buoyed or hopelessly at sea.
Contains sexual content, graphic nudity and profanity.