Wednesday, September 19, 2012


Instead of the belching fire, raging fury of blood and thunder and a climax ending with the phrase "I'm finished" in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," here's the latest from the acclaimed writer-director, "The Master," which is no less intense but a more quiet, intimate and ultimately maddening picture. A lot of the hype surrounding this film suggests it will be a true-to-life tale of the founding of Scientology and an exposé on L. Ron Hubbard. Those looking for something along those lines, turn back now. Hubbard's rise is merely the foundation upon which Anderson has constructed a towering, twisted metaphor for American life, power and history, much in the way he used Upton Sinclair's "Oil!" as the jumping point for 2008's "Blood." Unlike that film, however, this is a more cerebral, speculative and confounding experience with a narrative trajectory that gets further deconstructed as it moves forward.

We open at the conclusion of World War II. Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) served in the Navy, and after some post-war psychoanalysis is certifiably a mess. When shown Rorschach ink blotches, he only sees genitalia and mumbles answers about his mother's presence in a psych ward somewhere. And while he finds work as a portrait photographer in a department store and later as a worker in a cabbage field, his only real ability and interest is making potent yet dangerous cocktails out of paint thinner, dark room materials and household cleaners. This drifter walks along a pier one night and like a twinkling alluring light in the distance, there is a party boat docked with an amiable crowd aboard, and Freddie doesn't think twice about sneaking inside. He awakes the next morning after drunkenly passing out to meet Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a resolute man of clear thought and diction. Dodd sees an interest in Freddie and speaks to him as a father figure. "You will be my protege and my guinea pig," Dodd tells him.

So begins the fascinating and complex character study of contrast on Lancaster Dodd and Freddie the drifter. Their dynamic is introduced in Dodd's first "processing" session with Freddie, a sort of mental time travel, a hypnosis and search for past trauma that could trace back even millions -- or trillions -- of years. This "process" is the basis of Dodd's pseudo-religious, therapeutic cult known as the Cause. From here, Freddie's relationship with Dodd goes from pining son to devout follower to bitter cynic all with psycho-sexual undercurrents that are hard to read and uneasy to digest.

The performances that craft these characters from Hoffman and Phoenix are nothing short of brilliant. Phoenix gives Freddie a feral, hunched over demeanor with a crazed manic energy that, after Phoenix's public breakdown and bizarre quasi-documentary "I'm Still Here," feels only fitting for the actor and gives him career-best work. A scene in which a locked-up and hand-cuffed Freddie kicks and shatters a jail cell toilet right off the wall marks a shocking ferocity, a lucid contrast to Hoffman's Dodd who only shows flashes of his inner rage against doubters of the Cause. This includes his own son, Val (Jesse Plemons), who's convinced his father is making his religion up as he goes along. The opposite of this is Dodd's wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), who's pregnant and displays a motherly, wholesome feminine quality to perfectly accent Dodd's Cause. What the public doesn't see is a headstrong woman clawing at perfection. Even the masters have their masters, and Adams -- in a performance which will be recognized come award time -- shows Peggy's terrifying will in a private moment with her husband.

What's impossible to ignore about "The Master" is Paul Thomas Anderson's absolute command of the cinematic form. It's enough to keep any movie connoisseur completely enthralled with impeccable direction, mesmerizing and gorgeous 65mm (projected 70mm in select theaters) cinematography from Mihai Malaimare, Jr. (a Frances Ford Coppola favorite), which marks the first time cinematographer Roger Elswit hasn't worked on an Anderson film, and another unnerving and mind-bending score from Jonny Greenwood. It's all very much what we've come to expect from a masterful filmmaker, but then something happens that we don't expect.

As the film's narrative begins delving into dream states and Freddie's memories, the third act begins to strangely misshapen. A curious lack of development without a truly dramatic turn is what keeps Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film from reaching the greatness of his previous work. While perhaps eliciting a tinge of disappointment, this is in no way a misstep for the writer-director. I admire its contentious themes and lauded aesthetic elements, but an absence of riveting storytelling kept me from falling in love.

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