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The Cinematic Katzenjammer: Guest Review: The Master


Guest Review: The Master

"A striking portrait of drifters and seekers in post World War II America, Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master unfolds the journey of a Naval veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future - until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader (Philip Seymour Hoffman)."
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson, Rated: R, 137 minutes

When I first saw the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, I was as confused as I was mesmerized. Those two words – confused and mesmerized – more or less summarize my final reactions to this film, which garnered a fair bit of buzz for being, you guessed it – confusing and mesmerizing. Ultimately, I don’t know that the film is worth the performances of its two leads, but if I were in charge of an acting class, school or camp, I would make this film required viewing for those performances alone.

Yes. They're that good.

The Master is the kind of movie that does what it wants, and to hell with the rest of us. At times that approach really works and at others it really, really doesn't  Unfortunately, there's more of the latter going on in this film. I was a little biased going into this movie, as I’m a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s works, namely his recent tour de force There Will Be Blood, wherein Daniel Day Lewis’ portrayal of Daniel Plainview earned him an Oscar for Best Actor and a place in the “Holy F*cking Sh*t That Was Acting” Hall of Fame. Anderson has a way of drawing character from actors in a way that's nearly unrivaled among other directors. It helps that he has the ability to make any scene intensely threatening, no matter how well lit or seemingly innocuous.

The Master does this a lot.
To ask me what the movie is about is, first of all, an immensely difficult question to answer, and second of all, kind of a pointless one. The power of this film lies entirely in the performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix. I've heard early buzz about Daniel Day Lewis’ act in the upcoming Spielberg biopic Lincoln, so I’ll withhold early judgment on that for now, but barring that performance (which, seeing as it’s Daniel Day Lewis, will no doubt be spectacular) I've yet to see anything else this year that can hold a candle to the character Phoenix has brought to life here.

How to rave enough about Joaquin Phoenix's performance without wasting time…first, I think half the reason his portrayal of Freddie Quell is so compelling is because he himself is more than a little crazy. So I suppose the case could be made that the character of Freddie Quell is less a creation and more a “I’m being myself on screen” sort of situation, but I honestly can’t chalk it up to that. Sure, Phoenix has been a little kooky as of late, but nothing like this. Freddie Quell is a simian, erratic, frightening individual – as prone to explosions of violence as he is to anything else.

"I will rip out your teeth."
On top of that, you've got Philip Seymour Hoffman in absolute top form, portraying a character named Lancaster Dodd. Dodd is based on the controversial Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard. I've always been a fan of Hoffman – the first role he was in that absolutely blew me away was actually Mission Impossible III. He was also wonderful in Synechdoche, New York, Capote and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, though if pressed I’d say my favorite role of his would be that of Gust in Charlie Wilson’s War. I name the movies in an effort to highlight the man’s versatility. He’s one of our best living actors, and in The Master he really shines.

"I know I left my ability to do bad acting out here somewhere."
Also of note is a startling performance by Amy Adams as Lancaster Dodd’s cold, distant wife. I think in some capacity her character is the heartbeat of this film. She is beautiful, inaccessible, unforgiving, cold and loyal to an idea we never feel privy to. She is a walking embodiment of the film itself - transfixing, condescending and utterly convinced of what she has to say even if we, the hapless viewers, never quite figure out what that is. She shows off her ability to really act in this film, throwing us off kilter by showing us a very different side of the Amy Adams we think we know by putting on an extraordinarily mature – indeed, sometimes disturbing – performance. If you have any images of innocent-Amy you want to preserve, steer clear of this film.   

This isn't Amy Adams. This is her doppelganger (and friends) watching The Master.
So why am I not raving about this movie? Well, because it’s kind of a mess. I’m sure director Paul Thomas Anderson had a reasoning for laying the film out the way he did, but reason or not, the result leaves the audience more confused than compelled, and not for the right reasons. The chronology is often confusing, certain elements of the film feel unnecessarily obscure, namely why the film exists at all. Come film’s end, I had no idea what the movie was actually trying to tell me. I don’t think I’m a particularly unintelligent film-goer, I like high minded flicks as much as the next person, but The Master never offered much in the way of actual narrative. It had no real resolution (or indeed, problem to be resolved) and in the end had way more nudity than could ever be necessary.

The soundtrack, too, was utterly forgettable, as were most of the scenes in the middle and in the end. I found myself glancing at my watch on more than one occasion while watching this flick (something few artists want to hear) and that pained me. Like I said, I’m an enormous fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, but this just wasn't his best work. It was even more disappointing because it was built around such truly astonishing performances. It felt like there should have been more meat around the bone. A lot more meat. There never was, however, and in the end I walked away feeling like I knew less about the film than I did when I went in. While clearly in the same vein as There Will Be Blood, this film just didn't rise up to the standard.

Still drinkin' the Milkshake.
Ultimately, The Master is worth a look to see the performances of its two leads (and indeed, its quiet, ever-present Amy Adams) but should be approached with the knowledge that it will probably leave you feeling unfulfilled. It’s rare that I tell people to go see a movie that is disjointed, nonsensical and frustrating – but this is one of those movies. See it for the performances, hate it for its ambiguities, and wait with baited breath to see if Joaquin Phoenix gets the Oscar he probably should have won for his haunting portrayal of Commodus in Gladiator.

Better late than never.

THE BOTTOM LINE: Go for the performances. Sit in awe. Get confused. Watch the Avengers to restore balance to the Cinematic Force.

Best Actor - Joaquin Phoenix
Best Supporting Actor - Philip Seymour Hoffman
Best Supporting Actress - Amy Adams

Overall Score:  8/10


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At October 30, 2012 at 10:07 PM , Anonymous Tom said...

I came out of this film thinking, "You know, I'm sure that there were many deeper metaphors that I just haven't picked up on here. Surely I'll figure out what that was about if I give it some time to sink in." Well I have had some time, and I haven't had any sudden revelations. Loved the hell out of the acting though.

At October 31, 2012 at 8:59 AM , Blogger Ries said...

This was one of those movies that I finished and kept thinking "I know that was a good movie. I know it was. ... wasn't it?"


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