Director: Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood)
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Producers: Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison, Daniel Lupi, JoAnne Sellar
Starring: Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Kevin J. O’Connor
MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 137 min.
[HUGE heaps of thanks(!) to our buddy, Patrick Ripoll,
from The Director's Club for putting this review together for us]
If you care about film and have any vague awareness of what happens on the internet’s film community, you probably already know that Paul Thomas Anderson screened a 70mm print of his upcoming film, The Master, at Chicago’s historic Music Box Theater on August 16th. Despite being announced and going on sale a mere day’s notice, approximately 800 tickets sold out in hours. As we waited in line, it felt like a group of Catholics waiting to meet the Pope, especially since PTA was rumored to be there.
Luckily, he had the good sense to not come out to introduce or close the film. As much as I’d love to have seen the man, imagine Kubrick coming out after the second ever screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey to field questions about the Star Child. The Master is a similarly beautiful, bizarre and elusive film, with an incredible central performance that appropriately calls to mind two iconic Kubrick performances. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as Freddie Sutton, a mentally disturbed (PTA never lets the diagnosis of Freddie’s mental state get much more specific than that) WWII vet first and foremost calls to mind Malcolm McDowell’s Alex in A Clockwork Orange. He’s a man who seems to operate purely on base impulse and desire, with little use for society’s manners and conventions. He openly propositions women for sex in public. His anger turns to violence on the turn of a dime. He compulsively makes and drinks strange concoctions of various non-potable chemicals. You get the feeling that any time he spends not acting wildly is more a result of him being too bored or tired to do so than any kind of submission to the social contract.
It’s not until he meets Lancaster Dodd, creator and leader of a cult called “The Cause” (clearly based on Scientology) that he begins to resemble a second Kubrick character: the ape in 2001. Dodd’s fascination with Freddie, who directly challenges his cults call to destroy one’s animal impulses and evolve to a higher plane, leads to an unusual mentorship. It’s as if Dodd sees Freddie as an opportunity to prove to himself that his philosophies and theories actually are worth a damn. In turn, Dodd and “The Cause” represent an acceptance and unconditional love that’s been absent from his nomadic lifestyle. Simply put, they are Freddie’s monolith. They make him point his head up and acknowledge that he is not just an animal. But while Kubrick represented that evolution within the space of the world’s most famous jump-cut, Anderson dives deep into the pain of it.
Those going into this film expecting to find an indictment of Scientology, or organized religion of any kind, will likely leave as disappointed as those who assumed that There Will Be Blood would merely be an indictment of capitalism and religion. PTA has found his stride, and it would seem his films will be a lot less easy to define from here on. PTA seems to view religion as inherently false here, just like he did in There Will Be Blood, but he also seems to understand it. The struggle Freddie feels trying to battle his lesser impulses is heart-felt, painful, and doesn’t really condemn anyone involved. This is not A Clockwork Orange, where forced goodness comes at the expense of freedom, nor is it Boudu Saved from Drowning, where attempts to “civilize the savage” are merely condescending exercises in superiority. The struggles in the film come not from a clash between the nature of Freddie and the nurturing of Dodd, but entirely within Freddie himself. As a lapsed Catholic, it’s certainly a story I related to.
There’s not enough hyperbole to throw at Joaquin’s performance. When I refer to Freddie as animalstic, it doesn’t really do it justice. Joaquin is a man possessed here, losing himself in the role so completely it’s honestly frightening at times. When Freddie gets angry and violent, you legitimately fear for his co-stars. It’s the kind of compelling central performance that you saw with Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, but with none of the camp. Phoenix, along with the best cinematography of both Paul Thomas Anderson and DP Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s careers, are the strongest forces that carry you through this strange and often baffling film.
Which is good, because while the film has a raw-nerve charge every time Freddie’s onscreen, there’s a fair amount of it that is at best pleasantly surreal and at worst just plain tiring. I’ve given you the film’s basic premise and the themes I was able to draw out of it, but it’d be a bald-faced lie to say that I’m confident I understood it. The purpose and existence of numerous scenes baffled me and, much worse, bored me. It’s a dense film to be sure, and more than one viewing will likely be mandatory for most audiences. I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that this is indeed a staggering work of genius, but right now I’m not convinced of it. It feels less like a carefully constructed presentation of ideas than a instinctually driven exploration of them. Which, of course, is not an inherently better or worse way to make a film, but it does leave many scenes later in the film, particularly those that focus on the inner workings of The Cause, that lack the natural compelling element of Joaquin’s performance, to flounder on their own.
But of course, like There Will Be Blood before it – I have never heard two people who have the exact same take on Daniel Plainview as a character– this is a film that everyone will walk away from with their own feelings and opinions. There are too many breathtaking scenes (one in particular, between Hoffman and Phoenix that will be a very strong contender for 2012′s “Best Scene” Skandie), too much beautiful photography, and too many chilling moments to leave anyone feeling indifferent. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a deeply affecting one that you will carry in your head for a long time.