Friday, April 09, 2021

The Master (2012)

USA, 138 minutes
Director/writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Editors: Leslie Jones, Peter McNulty
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Laura Dern, Christopher Evan Welch, Patty McCormack, Rami Malek, Lena Endre, Madisen Beaty

The Master is a great and mystifying movie, hard to say exactly what it is. Last time through I took it as a buddy movie. But such strange buddies, in 1950 USA: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), mustered out of the Navy after World War II and a savant at mixing potions out of booze, paint thinner, and "secrets," and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the master of the title (and commander of a boat, he tells us at one point), who is the leader of a past lives regression cult called The Cause. Odds are good that Master and his movement are based on L. Ron Hubbard and Dianetics (later Scientology). But that's just context. Freddie and Master love one another with a strange ardor—wrestling around when they meet, skulking off to drink, forgiving everything always between them. All the cares and responsibilities of the world disappear in the pure presence of each other. Master can't remember when he met Freddie in a past life. The truth is neither one can even remember when they met on this plane, due to alcoholic stupor.

With talent on hand like Phoenix, Hoffman, and director and writer Paul Thomas Anderson (not to mention a very large assortment of excellent supporting players), perhaps you can do anything and get away with it. Among other things The Master is a practical example of that. Roger Ebert wrote a review marveling at the skills on hand but unable to fathom the result. Phoenix plays it almost purely physically, as he so often does. It's as if the energy coursing through Freddie is so gripping it affects his gait and the way he talks and interacts with people. He seems to be most comfortable getting into fights, which populate this picture like sight gags. Freddie is willing to mix it up with anybody who annoys him and he's the kind of person it makes you nervous and irritable just to be around. He makes me kind of nervous just looking at this movie.

In many ways I'm still not over Hoffman's death at the age of 46, which is over seven years ago now. It still colors seemingly all his work for me with too much of a sense of loss. His performance here is typically first-rate. His gravelly foghorn tones and natural self-deprecation tinged with self-loathing, like a beloved Santa Claus secretly miserable he is fat, are well suited here to the leader of a midcentury pseudo-scientific cult. Master ejaculates a lot of mumbo-jumbo and impresses his patsies, who mostly seem to be middle-aged or older women of means. He's an after-dinner speaker bloviator—he actually uses the word "tis." He has answers for everything and they smack enough of eternal cosmic wisdom that his ability to take people in is credible. They are otherwise often hilarious. He asks his entranced initiates, for example, as if he really wants to know, "Are you a member of any invader force on this planet or anywhere else?"

Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams) is perhaps even more of a true believer than Master and she brings new dimensions to his and her and Freddie's positions in the Great Chain of Being. The hypnotic inductions practiced by The Cause are numbingly repetitive, calling on subjects for example to say their names over and over. To get control of the boys' sprees, Peggy wakes Freddie in the middle of the night, shakes him around to make sure he's awake, and makes him repeat over and over and over his intention to quit the boozing. Her approach to Master, a demeaning sexual one that takes place at the bathroom sink, is equally forceful and to the point. Master and Freddie subsequently cut down the drinking or at least were more careful.

You more or less just have to roll with things in The Master and it often rewards the attention. There's another strange and confusing scene that takes place in a sumptuous first floor of a mansion where Master is performing, singing and dancing with a bass fiddle and four-hand piano accompaniment to the traditional Scottish air "We'll Go No More A-Roving" (a Lord Byron poem!). It's just Lancaster Dodd being silly, knowing he can do it because they view him as Master and thus everything he does is exalted. Hoffman's performance is teasing and lusty. It's early in the movie and everything associated with The Cause is new to Freddie. He still doesn't know what it's all about. Suddenly, in a cut during the song, some of the women are naked, then more of them with every cut as the mad song carries on. It's an overwhelming point of view shot of either or both Master and Freddie, reveling in their sexual powers.

The best scenes come like fragments from dreams. Late in the movie, Freddie pays a visit to California to see his girl Doris, the love of his life. When she was 16 he promised to come back some day from the sea and take her away. Now it is seven years later. Doris's mother answers the door. Freddie in his gruff way demands to see Doris. But she doesn't live there anymore. She lives in Alabama. She's been married for three years, and has two sons. This two-piece between Mrs. Solstad (Lena Endre) and Freddie is amazing, riveting, heartbreaking. All of his foolishness comes into sharp focus even for Freddie, while the rest of us might worry a little he's going to start slapping her around or something. One of the great features of many Phoenix roles is that he always seems about to explode. Yes, of course, it's derivative of Robert De Niro in his prime—but also, Phoenix can do it.

I'm never too sure of myself on The Master—it has disappointed in the past. And I'm a little skeptical of all the love Paul Thomas Anderson gets on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They? list of 21st-century bests (The Master is presently #30 on a list of 1,000), not to mention PTA's work itself, which is always skillful but also somewhat opaque. But I can say I whole-heartedly loved The Master when I looked at it the other day.

1 comment:

  1. There is a story in Mike Davis' City of Quartz about L. Ron Hubbard buddying up and debauching for a short time with some eccentric LA/Southland chemicals industrial giant and philanthropist. Neither resembling Phoenix's character in The Master but it still reminded me of Hoffman and Phoenix cavorting over their bootleg liquor made out of chemicals you find in the supplies closet routines in this one.