Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Master

Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

*** out of ****

There are so many shots where the unflattering contours of Joaquin Phoenix's face are captured with astounding beauty. For those who saw this movie in a major city where an advanced screening took place, it must have been something beautifully ugly to behold in full 70mm celluloid glory.

The Master is the first studio film in sixteen years to be completely shot in the 65mm/70mm process -an expensive method of shooting film that produces very high-resolution imagery. In the old days, this was reserved for grand-spectacle-epic-cinema like Lawrence of Arabia and 2001: A Space Odyssey. With today’s more advanced film stock this promises even grander results. Even though I was watching it in 2K digital projection, there was still a unique richness, that couldn’t be lost in translation, with every shot.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson has most likely utilized this medium as an advocate for shooting on film with the knowledge that the days of celluloid film-making are numbered. With the typical half-decade lag between his films, this may be his last opportunity. So why not shoot The Master, the way the masters would have?

I’ve never thought of Anderson as much of a storyteller. He’s a director who depends on atmosphere and tone generated by cinematography and sound design to capture his audience. It doesn’t work on everyone. This is probably because his subjects are usually too uncomfortable for a broad audience. “The Master” is no exception by a long shot. 

Set right after World War II, it is a long movie about a hopeless veteran drifter named Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix), who can’t adjust to a post-war domestic lifestyle. He spends time concocting mix-drinks that involve alcohol sources wherever available (paint thinner, for example), fornicating, and getting into fights. After running away from some big trouble, he stows-away on a boat that turns out to be carrying a rich writer named Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) with his family and followers of a new spiritual movement he has started called “The Cause.” All of this strongly resembles L. Ron Hubbard and the early stages of Scientology.

Dodd perceives the damage in Freddie and takes him in as a beast to tame utilizing a therapy technique known a “processing” in a long scene that is easily the best in the film. He gets Freddie to open up and be honest. One might find disappointment with the belief that this scene is a promise that we are to see Freddie get better throughout the film, when he won’t. Even at his best behavior, Freddie is like Alex during the second half of A Clockwork Orange. You can see the pain of restraint on his face when being civil. It is more uncomfortable watching Phoenix in this role than watching his meltdown in the mockumentary, I’m Still Here.

Then there is Hoffman’s Dodd –or “Master” as he likes to be called, who’s like a surgeon who is only qualified enough to know how to safely cut a person open but pretends to know what he’s doing when he’s inside. This pretentious character, what he represents, and his name seem like the perfect invention for a Coen Brothers comedy. His wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), is his most protective supporter and fears Freddie’s violence and impulsive behavior, which she believes to be “beyond help.” Dodd clings to Freddie as a pet project possibly because fixing this repulsive man will prove him to be great, or because he connects to Freddie in an unspoken way. Nothing is certain.

Check out Roger Ebert's Review.

Paul Thomas Anderson avoids certainty about his characters and prefers their motivations to be undefined with the complexity of a human being’s natural animal side fighting the rational. Phoenix painfully conveys this broken human all too well. 

This movie is about someone in need of help getting bad help. It’s gorgeously captured and not fun to watch. This is a pure artistically driven film that is challenging and far, far away from predictable sensationalism. It made me feel awful but it will stick with me. Years down the road I may watch it and feel something different. What is most important, is that it will inspire discussion, one of many things The Master does, that cinema is drifting away from.

Check out The AV Club's review.

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