Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell is a man so wracked by his carnal urges that he walks in convulsive, post-coital spasms and pants in ragged thrusts when he runs. At the conclusion of World War II, the seaman joins his comrades on a beach in the Pacific, wrestling, copulating with a woman made of sand and masturbating in a grimly violent celebration of peace. Back home, Freddie reports for a military psych evaluation, a farcical conveyor belt that feeds disturbed soldiers through a handful of perfunctory, still-new techniques in a one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. The results clearly show an unwell man, but director Paul Thomas Anderson cuts abruptly to the sailor working as a mall photographer, posing families into the waxy, beaming photos that define the period. Freddie effectively applies mortar to the bricks of postwar conformity, cementing it by turning every family into a false, overlit, eerie perfect image. Eventually, the irony gets to this loner, and he finds himself thrown into the wildernerss to drift.

Unable to fit in with even smaller communities, Freddie eventually stumbles his way to a yacht about to set sail, Anderson follows behind the man and racks the background in and out of focus, signifying Freddie's desire to be a part of the gathering on-board and his knowledge that he would not fit in. (In a less abstract way, it may also just be a visualization of Freddie's perpetual state of drunkenness, brought on by his homemade, paint-thinner-laced hooch.) Soon, Freddie wakes up in a cot on the ship, invited to meet the man in charge. The man (Philip Seymour Hoffman), does not give his name. Instead, he quizzes Freddie with a tone of disappointment, like a father whose boy has come home late. This puts Freddie at ease as much as it fills him with an embarrassment he does not typically feel as a freely fighting and fucking scoundrel. The man invites Freddie to remain with him, and the spastic, vulgar seaman soon finds himself the right-hand man in a burgeoning cult movement.

Hoffman brilliantly lays out the appeal of such a man. His booming, clear oratory stands in sharp contrast to Phoenix's jagged mumbling, and his paternalistic warmth gives outcasts all the love they never received from their actual authority figures. To divert attention from his tyrannical thought control, Hoffman's Master even lets his believers feel as if they get to contribute to the truth that he sells: when Freddie confides that he does not know what the Master is saying at one point, Hoffman responds that neither does he, which is why he needs everyone's help. But this man also relies on the unbending loyalty of others, and he can barely start a debate with a skeptic before his logical fallacies leap into full aggression. At the halfway mark, his name, Lancaster Dodd, is finally spoken by a police officer serving a warrant. The mere mention of his name momentarily breaks the spell of his omniscience as much as the fact he is being charged with a crime.

The extent of Dodd's thirst for control reveals itself in his "processing" of Freddie, a method of interrogation that crosses a psychiatric evaluation with a confessional. The processing starts benignly, with Dodd principally making Freddie repeat yes/no answers to innocuous questions with a game Freddie amiably playing along. After Freddie asks him to continue, Dodd does, and the close-ups that merely relayed a shot/reverse-shot relationship between the two men suddenly pulls back to show Dodd's head in the foreground looking at Freddie as he asks the man much more personal, penetrative questions. The shot holds on Freddie for extended lengths of time as it watches him, per Dodd's instruction, not blink as he answers. Dodd uses the exercise to strip away Freddie's boundaries, but it unmasks the Master as well, laying out plainly the manner in which he sucks in those who cannot conform to society into a life that will demand even more conformity. This agonizing scene shatters for Freddie but also cleanses him in a way the impersonal psychiatric care did not, making him feel as if he finally found a place where he belongs even as he is visibly enslaved by this new master.

From such patches of gripping material, Anderson makes...what? Rather than develop these teasingly strands of setup into a focused narrative or theme, The Master stalls out. Phoenix, so captivating as an outwardly imploding animal, does not turn his performance inward so much as he completely shuts down for periods at a time until he unleashes violence as his old self tugs at the community he feels around others for the first time. Anderson simply repeats a basic formula—Freddie acts as Dodd's most fiercely loyal follower, threatens to apostatize out of his inability to behave, then slowly comes back in with renewed faith—to the point of tedium. The metronomic wood block of Johnny Greenwood's score comes to represent the flow of the film: initially off-beat and jarring, but ultimately repetitive and directionless. Dodd gives this method purpose, the unmaking and rebuilding of converts, but he has the advantage of not ultimately caring about the meaning of his words, while Anderson seems to search for a point to all this at every turn.

The Master is a film of close-ups and almost relentlessly centered compositions, set within postwar interiors that lack the satirical claustrophobia of the decade's melodramas. Nicholas Ray, for example, used CinemaScope more for his domestic dramas than his expansive, exterior pictures, using the extra width to probe the confined bourgeois space around the actors, finding emotional voids in consumerist milieux that only drove those who resided in them to dizzying heights of uncontrollable feelings. Nothing exists in Anderson's close-ups outside the faces, initially captivating (especially Phoenix's, with one side slack and the whole of it criss-crossed with lines and a cleft-lip scar), but eventually powerless through overuse. The detail of the shots is undeniably gorgeous, but compositionally, this is easily Anderson's weakest outing, as well as that of cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., who previously brought formal dazzle to Francis Ford Coppola's digital comeback films.

But perhaps the static, centered frames and languid pace of the film serve to reflect the nature of Dodd's approach, seemingly ordered by logic and rationality but, as Dodd's son would say of his father, "making it up as he goes along." The Master itself operates like a cult, introducing tantalizing tidbits of information presented in an aesthetically pleasing manner. When it comes time to link these pieces together under a cogent, unified philosophy, however, the film leaves only blanks. All the better to lure in the sufficiently intrigued to fill in those blanks with whatever they please, strengthening their bond to the material by making them think what they brought to the movie was there all along. A scene in The Master actually illustrates this: Dodd, in a literal song-and-dance moment to hook his assembled followers, soft shoes around a parlor singing to his guests before the camera cuts to Freddie watching. Cut back to Dodd, and now all the women in the room are stark naked, standing around the Master in a carnal, if still banal, paradise. Constantly cautioned away from his base, "animal" instincts by Dodd, Freddie nevertheless sees the perfect fulfillment of the Cause as Dodd, merry and warm, speaking to a whole room and yet just to him, and a bevy of female flesh to sate his hunger. Similarly, the directionless drift of Anderson's film can be ignored and indeed even repurposed to suit the needs and observations of any viewer who chooses to project into its void.

The muddled themes of the film recall There Will Be Blood in the manner in which it presents two main interpretations: one social, one intimate, both half-baked. The Master both is an isn't a critique of cults and the manner in which this country and its social orchestration facilitates such organizations. Hoffman's subtle snake-oil salesman touches (the constant greasing of his hair into place, his close relationship with Freddie, who effectively makes his own snake oil) hint at a nuanced skewering of such a figure, but Anderson focuses on Dodd's fickle servant so completely that Freddie's constant temptation away from the Cause undermines its foundation as an infectious, consuming idea for social outliers, making the fanatical loyalty of Amy Adams' Mrs. Dodd and Laura Dern's devotee seem airdropped into the film for effect rather than a developed. As a much simpler story of a father-son/master-pupil/Platonic lover relationship, The Master treads such predictable ground that that the "insert profundity here" gulfs it leaves amid Phoenix and Hoffman's most focused scenes serve only to destroy the film's already shaky momentum.

Anderson's work constantly tugs between the juvenile and frenetic and the mature and analytical. The Master makes this split the foundation of its narrative. But by separating out these elements so fully into each lead, the director leaves a hole between these attitudes that only widens and widens as the film wears on. Not until the end do the two fully join for a tossed-off but wickedly brilliant dĂ©nouement in which Freddie uses Dodd's processing method as foreplay, debasing the mind control exercise even as he inadvertently reveals that is all the process ever was from the start. It is the most devilishly clever moment of the entire film and, placed of the film, almost gives the impression that The Master was building it all along. But then, it's easy to write to a punchline, less so to craft the setup to get to it.

1 comment:

  1. I think the lack of a focused narrative or theme is brilliant because it perfectly mirrors Freddie's own lack of focus in regard of what he wants for his life (serving The Master? Regaining his sweetheart?) making the film drift just like the protagonist is adrift in a world he cannot comprehend or fit in.