Archive | November, 2012

‘The Master’ (2012) looks amazing.

26 Nov

Following ‘There Will Be Blood’ would be a difficult task for director Paul Thomas Anderson, his last film being generally accepted as a masterpiece. Though he has a fair stab at it with ‘The Master’, a drama set in post-WWII America. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a sex-crazed WWII veteran with severe alcohol problems. Following his return from the battlefield he moves from lousy job to lousier job, until he stumbles across an enigmatic cult leader, Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Freddie becomes Dodd’s protégée and they begin to influence each other’s lives in various ways through their respective involvements in ‘The Cause’.

The first film to be shot on 65mm film since Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Hamlet’ in 1996, as opposed to the standard 35mm; in other words, the increased space allows for a noticeable increase in nuance and detail. There is no other way to say it, this film is stunning to look at. A vast array of different camera angles, long shots, filters and magnificent lighting combine to make ‘The Master’ a cinematographic work of art. The soundtrack deserves special mention too. It darts between unnerving, hypnotically dark jazz (reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti’s score for the TV show ‘Twin Peaks’) to bouncy jukebox tunes to reflect the ever-changing mood and tone of the film. I haven’t seen a movie that simply looks this good in quite a while, and this alone earns it a recommendation. However, the visuals and sounds are among the only aspects of ‘The Master’ I enjoyed.

I didn’t buy Phoenix’s character, mainly because I think several of his characteristics simply weren’t developed enough. He is described as a horny maniac at the beginning, yet this is never expanded upon It was hard to tell when he was sober or otherwise, which should have been easy based on what he was drinking. He mixed his own ‘drinks’; everything from paint thinner to Lysol was thrown together. This guy is no mere drunkard: he manages to drink industrial-strength alcohol while somehow maintaining consciousness. Hoffman was, for me, the star of the show. His character is by far the most interesting, and he plays him well. As my friend remarked, he is like William Shatner with a  theology degree; she forgot to mention his ridiculous yellow moustache. Shamelessly and convincingly over the top, he steals the show for me, and I’d probably have preferred it had the film been based more on him. Amy Adams’ character is simply unsettling. There is one scene where the camera focuses on her eyes, and it is so randomly and unexpectedly creepy that the viewer has to be left terrified of her for the remainder of the film.

This is a very ambiguous film – at times hard to follow. Things happen and people are introduced which seem important, as if new plot-lines are being created. Freddie gets involved in a few scuffles; one makes sense, while the rest serve no purpose to the plot. Dodd’s sceptical son expresses his feelings about his father’s crazy religious sect, but in an ultimately arbitrary way. Finally, Freddie’s relationship with his girlfriend is hazy at best – the movie is not clear about what’s going on there. Ambiguity is an often effective method of keeping the audience guessing, though in ‘The Master’ it’s just irritating. The ending in particular perplexed me: without giving anything away, a frankly massive new plot idea is introduced, and then the film ends! Potential for a sequel, yes, though Anderson has never done a sequel to date, and I think it unlikely he’ll start with a ‘Master 2’.

Now, on to question that has been dogging this film and been hanging around it like a bad smell… Is the cult a parody of Scientology? Is Lancaster Dodd a caricature of L. Ron Hubbard? While the comparisons are not too overt (the church would sue them into oblivion if that was the case) there are some subtle hints scattered throughout the movie which show that Anderson probably had Scientology in mind when brainstorming for this movie. From the phrasing of certain concepts (‘negative emotion’ etc.) to the fact that, like Scientologists, members of ‘The Cause’ sign a billion-year contract, a certain juxtaposition between the two philosophical movements could certainly be fathomed. Also of interest is the year the film takes place in – 1950 is the year that ‘Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health’, L. Ron Hubbard’s first canonical text for Scientology, was first published. It should also be noted that one of Hubbard’s sons has been famously at odds with his father’s religion, must like Lancaster Dodd’s child.

In short, I was wowed by ‘The Master’ but it failed to move me emotionally. The characters, while well-acted, were difficult to identify with; they managed to be simultaneously paper-thin yet oddly obtuse. They were hard to connect with, and I didn’t see what either of the male leads had at stake; Freddie can leave the cult whenever he wants, and I’m convinced Hoffman’s character would have carried on in the same way, regardless of Freddie’s presence. In fact, towards the finale it could be argued that they flourished without each other. I just didn’t care about them, in the way I was constantly trying to care about them. A beautiful, gorgeous movie with a superb soundtrack and great acting, but ultimately a confusing and frankly dull experience. Worth a watch, but perhaps bring your ipod or something, and pause it when music that’s louder than yours comes on.

Simon says: worth watching, but perhaps with headphones.

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