Sunday, October 07, 2012

The Master, finally (mild spoilers)

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master several days ago, but I haven't been able to bring myself to write about it until now due to a combination of lack of time, conflicted reactions, and the almost always unsatisfying relationship between expectations and what's finally onscreen. Did I like The Master? Yes, but I wonder if finally I admired its ambition and craft more than I actually enjoyed it. The Master finally belongs to Joaquin Phoenix, whose performance as the drifting World War II veteran Freddie Quell is both physically disciplined (Where did that walk come from?) and pulsing with barely concealed desires. Freddie is yearning for physical contact but can't follow through, as in the scene where he falls asleep while on a date, but Phoenix's performance suggests an intelligence and a desire for the life that he and his fellow servicemen are promised upon returning home. ("A few acres of land....a gas station...") In a gorgeously shot moment Freddie spies Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Peggy (Amy Adams) hosting a shipboard party. Freddie sneaks on board the boat and embarks on the next chapter of his life.

The Master wants to be about too many things, and that becomes its central flaw as the movie goes on. In postwar America sex and opportunity are pretty easily available but no one has taught Freddie how to handle either one. In Dodd and his pseudo-religion "The Cause" Freddie finds a belief system that seems geared towards the new post-atom bomb America; The Cause is all about casting off old emotions and getting man to his "natural state of perfect." We're exposed to a number of Cause "applications" during The Master, most notably the "processing" that is modeled on the Scientology practice of auditing. Dodd asks Freddie questions about his life and memories, and Freddie (in tight close-up) breaks through and admits that he is haunted by memories of an aborted romance with a hometown girl named Doris (Madisen Beaty). Anderson splits the movie into two branches about here: We follow Freddie's fast rise to become one of Dodd's lieutenants, and at the same time a series of scenes are devoted to Dodd's fight to gain acceptance or the Cause and produce a second book. It's this second group of scenes that slows the movie down; Hoffman gives an outsized, showman performance of exquisite control and he is matched by a fierce Amy Adams. Yet while Anderson doesn't and shouldn't indicate how we should feel about Dodd, I wish that I felt Anderson himself had made up his mind. I wanted to see more behind the veneer that Hoffman gives the character. At one point a follower (Laura Dern) questions Dodd about a change in Cause philosophy and Dodd starts to blow up at her, but Anderson doesn't let the moment go anywhere.

Why does Anderson spend so much time on the internal workings of The Cause? He is really interested less in belief systems than in the relationship between two American archetypes, the conner and the conned.  (The question of which is which is much more complicated in There Will be Blood than it is here.) Freddie is looking for something and Dodd, for a time, provides it for him, but the movie doesn't let Freddie breathe in the outside world until it's too late. I'd argue an excellent ending for The Master would have been to leave Freddie outside Doris's house after his strained conversation with her mother (Lena Endre). But we're due one final scene with Dodd, and so it's off to England and a reunion with Dodd's son Val (Jesse Plemons). Val expresses doubts early on about his father, but we're never told why or what happens to change his mind. That much discussed final scene between Freddie and Dodd is a fine acting moment for both Phoenix and Hoffman, but I wish I had the first idea what it meant. As a fan of Anderson's love for outcasts and misfits (Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love and most of the cast of Magnolia) I wanted badly to be more moved by Freddie's quest for meaning, but in trying to say something about our modern need for guidance I think The Master just doesn't say enough.

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