Monday, September 17, 2012

The Master

The Master is a film about a man who needs to get laid.

I wish I was being sarcastic. But just go see the film for yourself and see if, indeed, the main character needs [or at least thinks he needs] anything other than a good woman to save him.

The time is postwar America. Young men have come back from the stress of war hoping to achieve the American dream by starting businesses, having families and, in essence, moving America forward. But some of the men who came back have suffered in one way or another and are trying to find a way to fit back in to society. Enter Freddie [Joaquin Phoenix] a completely fucked up, lonely, unstable, drunk who - despite an ability to make a killer drink [paint thinner and all] - can't hold a job or find a friend. Escaping into the dusk after having been accused of trying to kill a fellow worker he jumps aboard a small vessel right into the clutches of a cult leader name Lancaster Dodd [Philip Seymour Hoffman] who has a growing legion of devoted fans and is looking to make an impact to further his religious / self help cause.

This being a Paul Thomas Anderson film the themes are have the semblance of being big and the emotions run high. But it's also a film, unfortunately, in which some of Freud's creaky ideas [psycho sexual, the male id and all] play a big role. So much so that it borders on irony - although I don't think it is. [Despite Phoenix's claim that he felt the movie was a comedy].

Freddie is mentally probed and broken down by Dodd who feels obligated to cure him of his base, animal self. But Freddie's [actually Phoenix's] squinting, snarling scowl, oft times impatient anger, explosive fits of rage and frustratedly pacing through scenes tells you this is not going to happen. And, frankly, the guy needs medication - not spiritual help.

Phoenix does not so much act as pull a big stunt here. So much so that - other than a few moments of genuine emotion - the performance is rather distracting. He's like a reality show character who's dropped in on a movie. How will he top himself next? Hoffman, on the other hand, is quite good as the charismatic, quack cult leader and shows some character growth. The two form a bond that feels right and honest much of the time. The film's script by Anderson is best when they are together and it seems, to me, that the film was written around these key scenes. Other than that the film does not hold well enough together to be as powerful as it could be. Instead, we get a series of good scenes strung together amounting to little except an idea of something bigger and better. All the other acting in the film passes muster but doesn't deliver. Amy Adams, for instance, is given a side role as the wife of the cult leader who has her own draconian way of demanding fealty from Freddy.

**Spoiler of sorts**

In the final scene Freddie is shown having sex with a young women he has just met in a pub. Mission accomplished. What took so long? Whether or not he will remain happy - given his highly volatile nature - seems unlikely. But since he is no longer involved with the cult leader [father] or his judgmental wife [mother] or the skeptical family members [brothers and sisters] he can move on with his life into the void of his own disturbed and lonely psyche.

Kent Jones at Film Comment has an insightful review.
Richard Brody at The New Yorker [blog] also has a good review.

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