Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Master

Writer and director Paul Thomas Anderson acknowledges that "The Master" was modeled after the late L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology.  Taking on such a controversial topic isn't easy as there are so many doubters, but this movie is about much more than spiritual belief.  Paul Thomas Anderson is a very talented filmmaker having also been the writer and director of "There Will Be Blood" (2007) and had received several other nominations. 

The story begins during the final days of World War II with Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) on the beach.  After the war, Freddie is left to his own self-destructive ways as he wanders aimlessly, recklessly from job to job.  He makes his own special type of moonshine, which he relies on to get him through the day as he cannot take his life straight.  The opening sequence features Joaquin Phoenix almost exclusively as a backdrop to the mind of a emotionally struggling individual.  In a way this could also be a way of explaining his absence from the big screen over the last four years where he said he was retiring.  Luckily, much like his character fate has brought him to the film where he has a chance encounter with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) as a stow away aboard a private cruise boat.

As the story develops, the methods and applications of Lancaster Dodd are demonstrated on Freddie, who has become his protégé and guinea pig.  Dodd's movement asserts that we are a part of a billion years of life connected over time and through a force different from God but no less powerful.  It is that spiritual and emotional human void that is so easily exploited by this movement.  Is there a basis for the methods and applications used by Lancaster Dodd, or is he making it up as he goes along as his son (Jesse Plemons) implies?  Through the eyes of Freddie it isn't clear who is actually drunk.  Is it the spiritually weak Freddie who is dependent on alcohol, or is it Lancaster Dodd who is drunk with power.  With the use of alcohol there are several instances where you wonder if what you are watching is what is actually happening or just what is a part of a day dream from Freddie.  There is a connection between the two that bonds the two men together, and helps Freddie cope with his past failures.  Whether it is a true method that can be applied to all is unclear as even Lancaster Dodd changes the message to his followers. 

The performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are equally stunning.  However, not to be outdone is Amy Adams who powerfully stands along the side of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the wife to the Master.  There are also some smaller roles that are worth noting including Madisen Beaty (Doris), a 16 year old that Freddie starts a relationship with before going off to war; and Ambyr Childers (Elizabeth), as the the daughter of Lancaster Dodd who is supportive of the methods along with her husband Clark portrayed by Rami Malek.

The use of imagery by Paul Thomas Anderson is strong throughout the film.  Images of the sea and the wake of a ship churning the deep blue water show that Paul Thomas Anderson is thinking more about the articstic qualities of the film and less the story being told.  It is beautiful to look at, much like Terrance Milick's "The Tree of Life", but requires further analysis to understand the true meaning.  Is it that the powers of technology are greater than the spiritual nature of the Earth?  In taking an artistic approach to filmmaking, Paul Thomas Anderson used 70mm film to capture the vast imagery, which is truly beautiful to look at.

This is a film about the extraordinary complexities of human character and relationships.   While the story suffers from its grand approach to a controversial topic the performances from Joaquin Phoenix and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are among the best for the year and are each deserving of a Best Actor nomination.  It is very clear that Joaquin Phoenix is "still here" and Phillip Seymour Hoffman never left.  While this film will not be for everyone, taking a step back from pre-conceived notions of religion and enjoying the performances will help get you past a run time that exceeds two hours.  I happily award 4 Quacks to "the Master" for its amazing performances.

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