Saturday, September 22, 2012

Movie Review: "The Master"

I would love to spend time with director Paul Thomas Anderson, just some time talking to him and seeing how his mind works in regular conversation. Because from his mind, some immensely indelible—and incredibly mind-blowing—films have sprung. And his latest movie, The Master, has moments of sheer brilliance as well as moments which leave you utterly bewildered.

Under Anderson's direction, a number of actors have given searingly memorable performances, none quite as breathtaking as Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning turn as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, although Tom Cruise's Oscar-nominated performance in Magnolia still resonates for me as well. The Master, too, boasts some sensational performances I'd expect to be recognized at next year's Oscars.

Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix, triumphantly returning from his self-imposed acting retirement) is a deeply troubled World War II veteran, prone to unprovoked violence, heavy drinking (concoctions no one should try to make at home), unbridled sexual urges, and a general sadness about the direction in which his life has gone and continues to go. He drifts from place to place, job to job, dreaming of the girl who got away, and drinking himself into a stupor.

One night he stows away on a boat on which a party is taking place. The next morning he is summoned by the person leading the voyage, the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (a brilliant Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Dodd sees in Freddie a soul in need of saving, so he invites him to be his guest on the ship as it makes its way back to New York City.

Dodd is the leader of a movement called The Cause (many have wondered if this is a jab at scientology and L. Ron Hubbard), governed by psychological and spiritual mumbo-jumbo involving hypnosis and past life regression, among other things. He is both viewed as "The Master" by his acolytes and a sham by his critics, who have questioned Dodd's claims that The Cause can cure fatal disease, even solve world peace if given the chance. And as Dodd and his followers, including his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams, sweetness belying razor-sharp steeliness), children, and numerous others, travel the country, they find themselves at odds with those who question The Cause. Freddie, however, proves both the perfect and most flawed vessel for Dodd, as his spirit and mind are sometimes willing but his spirit, body, and psyche are almost always weak. He is fiercely devoted to The Master, and is willing to fight anyone who questions his teachings. (Fight being the operative word.)

Does Dodd really believe in what he preaches? Does Freddie believe The Master can rescue him, or is he simply viewing him as a surrogate father? Is Dodd really interested in saving Freddie? Can Freddie actually be saved? Anderson leaves you to draw your own conclusions, which as the film progresses and layers on dream sequences and flashbacks, becomes increasingly more difficult.

As with many of Anderson's previous films, The Master becomes downright trippy and phantasmagorical at times (a party scene in which Freddie hallucinates is at first jarring and then becomes uncomfortable as it continues for far too long). But the film also contains flashes of sheer acting brilliance that made me literally gasp (although not quite as loudly as during There Will Be Blood, as this movie doesn't have that film's jaw-dropping power).

I've been a fan of Hoffman's for some time, but this is definitely one of the best performances he's ever given. You are mesmerized, bewildered, frustrated, sympathetic, horrified, and amused by Dodd's behavior. And Joaquin Phoenix so fully inhabits the downtrodden, life-weary Freddie Quell that even his posture and the way he carries himself throughout the movie is incredible. While Amy Adams' role is much smaller and less flashy, she demonstrates a fierce power in many of her moments.

Many reviews have called this movie a masterpiece, while others have dubbed it overblown, indulgent, confusing, and downright horrible. I probably fall somewhere in the middle. To me, the performances alone make the movie worth seeing, even if it isn't one you'll necessarily enjoy.

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