Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Man on Film: The Master

If there is a thread that ties Paul Thomas Anderson's rather diverse filmography together, it is that his works are all offbeat character studies. With each venture, the subject and subject matter may vary drastically, but that central characteristic remains.

As with the rest of his oeuvre, The Master marches to its own beat, and that beat is not set by anyone playing drums. Whether it was Daniel Plainfield in There Will Be Blood, Barry Egan in Punch-Drunk Love, Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, or the two sides of the coin that Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman play in the forms of Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd in The Master, Anderson places the most importance on the journey of the character and not nearly as much on the journey itself. To those craving a conventional tale in which the action and events tell the audience everything they need to know, Anderson's careful but at time obtuse studies on character are going to be ultimately unfulfilling.

Even more than his previous works, The Master veers away from a brand of filmic storytelling adhering to conventions. To me, this makes him one of cinema's brightest and most unique working auteurs, with his deft hand and careful eye and maverick vision putting him in the rarified company of Terrence Malick as writer / directors whose vision is so singular and so complete as to leave me grateful just to have gotten to go along on their ride.

In The Master, that ride is one in which two polar opposites in virtually every way are drawn together despite or perhaps exactly because of their stark differences. The extreme contrast of the two is never clearer than when they're both arrested and thrown in jail. Freddie sits (or rather rages) at one end of the spectrum: the animalistic, uncontrollable, volatile, violent man; Lancaster stands at the other pole: civilized, controlled, calm, at peace. The scene is perhaps the most powerful of the film and is a microcosm of the film on the whole. Neither the greater mechanisms and institutions of society nor the man who represents his opposite can control him, and the longer he tries to conform himself to these externally constructed systems the more violent the recoil will be when the controlling grip is lost.

What this existential struggle between the two primarily means is that both the two leads, Phoenix and Hoffman, are served up meaty roles with which they can stretch their legs, crank their necks, loosen their jaws, and bite right into. Phoenix's return to dramatic acting* is a triumph. He loses himself in the role. It is one wrought with pathos, infused with a primal physicality, an overarching hyper-pubescent sexuality, and a mischievous spirit. His backstory is a bit murky. It's hard to tell if he was broken before the war or not. Regardless, it is breathtaking. Hoffman's role requires a command of self, a conveyance of confidence, that makes the audience believe in and want to follow him. That confidence has to be so prominent that even when Lancaster Dodd is clearly making up things he believes them to be true as soon as they are uttered.

*I'm Still Here was a lot of things, but I think we can all agree it wasn't a dramatic piece of fiction.

In support, Amy Adams is fantastic. The cold-hearted First Lady of a cult-leader crackpot with an eye on the prize and a believe in The Cause that drives her. Her icy stare, when employed, is startling. It's also nice to have Jesse Plemons in house, as there is never a time that I don't want to see him in something. Unfortunately, he kills no one here, so the Landry/Todd murderer jokes don't get extended to The Master.

And as for Anderson, The Master, a full realization of his very unique vision, is captivating, and in its 70mm glory is something to behold.

Trailer is NSFW

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