Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Master review

It would in no way be a bold statement to class Paul Thomas Anderson as one of the greatest directors in the last two decades. In the era of modern cinema, the fact that Anderson exists is a miracle for film lovers, his a beacon of hope for people (like me) who think Hollywood are dumbing down more then ever (I'm looking at you Michael Bay) and are not extending their talent and possibilities. Anderson's new film, The Master, is a chalice of quality film-making and deep emotional character study with immense performances from Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.

The Master tells the tale of Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell, an ex-Navy servicemen who struggles to adjust to civilian life after the end of the Second World War. When we first encounter Quell he is something of a beast of a man, resembling something of The Tempest's Caliban in the scenes on the pacific island. He dry humps sand sculptures of women, masturbates furiously in the sea and drinks alcohol from coconuts, this first encounter with Quell sets up Phoenix's character from the off. Even with his fellow servicemen, Freddie seems like something of an outcast, always looking in and always by himself. His only conversation with someone in the opening scene is how to get rid of crabs. Its not difficult to sense the loneliness that surrounds Freddie and its in the opening scene that Anderson equips the audience with magnifying glasses so we too can study the character that is , Freddie Quell.When you see Quell back in normal life, undertaking a job as a photographer for a department store, its not difficult to see his obscurity in the normalities of life. His body language is grotesque with Phoenix physically acting out Quell's twisted psychology. It doesn't take long for Quell to snap when he aggravates on of his customers, in rather humorous fashion, and what ensues is a wrestling match concluding in smashed glass and Quell unemployed. But its Anderson's direction through this scene that aids the audience in feeling the energy and Quell's sudden outburst of anger. Again Phoenix takes on the role physically hurling himself around the department shop floor.

Quell's life takes a turn for the worst as he ends up doing manual labour, poisoning a man with his homemade moonshine and having to go on the run. It might be a turn for the worst for Freddie but its a wonder to watch for the audience with Anderson capturing amazing long shots, best seen in Freddie running across the fields to evade capture, its simple shots like these that demonstrate Anderson's ability to take a normal scene and make it something to gawp and wonder at.

In pure coincidence Quell stumbles across the ship Alethia, which is hosting a party that an uninvited Quell cannot help but invite himself along to. This is finally when we meet The Master or Lancaster Dodd played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. As soon as he appears Hoffman swallows the screen, taking over every inch of it with his bold, electrifying charisma.  Dodd quickly takes a fancy to Freddie, and his homemade moonshine, inviting him to work on his ship and attend his daughter's wedding. Its clear from then on that Freddy has entered some tight group, cult like organization titled The Cause. Everyone seems too nice for their own good and somehow hypnotized by Dodd's loud and enthralling charisma. Yet as soon as Dodd appears the film quickens pace as you see the companionship between Dodd and Freddie grow, Dodd appears to be interested in Freddy's animal like instinct and his belief they have met in a formal life and Freddie seems to enjoy Dodd's experiments. Dodd appears like a mix of L. Ron Hubbard and Nurse Ratched from One Flew over the Cuckoos nest, yet it is Hoffman's spine chilling portrayal of a man that seems to be making it all up as he goes along.

With this new found pace we learn more and more about Dodd's cult The Cause. It is based upon the belief that you can use hypnosis time travel to return humans to a state of perfection. Dodd even believes it can cure some forms of leukemia. Yet none of this perfection seems achievable or close to anything satisfying enough to believe in The Cause. Dodd asks a lot of questions of his followers and patients in an attempt to get them to believe they have spiritually traveled in time through their soul. Its all fake of course but The Cause's belief structure isn't what Anderson is interested in, instead Anderson concentrates on the relationship of Dodd and Freddie. Amy Adams' character, Peggy Dodd, is the only female with a voice. Peggy is the wife of Dodd and at times seems to be the brains behind The Cause with her ability to control her husband, dictating his thoughts. Its difficult for Adams' character to stand out due the two strong central male performances but her role is needed and greatly performed, After an arrest for practicing medicine without a license police seize Dodd causing Freddy to burst into a fit of rage, wrestling with three policeman in which again you can feel the energy emulating from Freddy. Its one of the rare scenes in which Dodd resembles something of a father to Freddy and Freddy resembling something of a child of Dodd. But this doesnt happen for long, after being banged up in prison Freddy lets rip on his opinion of Dodd but not before smashing and breaking everything in his cell with Phoenix transforming into some form of animal, hunched backed and aggressive. Freddy protests that his beliefs are all made up and lacks any direction. Its the first scene in which the relationship between the father and son like dynamic breaks down due to Freddie's anger issues and animalistic nature. Yet it would appear that this is exactly what interests Dodd in Freddy, at least that's what it seems like Anderson is trying to get us to think.

After their release Anderson erects a montage of Dodd's experiments upon Freddie such as making him walk window to wall endlessly in an attempt to control him and in attempt to control his anger Dodd gets his son in law to hurl abuse at him, mainly directed at his sweetheart Doris, and it can only be said that Freddie's reactions are nothing short of hilarious. Despite this hilarity this is where the films slows down, dragging its plot and characters in hope of some form of conclusion and at times feels like its stopped dead. But if you push through the film concludes in rather inspiring fashion. After riding off with Dodd's motorbike Freddie gets summoned to England where Dodd and his cult have set up camp in a rather extravagant manor house and school. Its here that the character study of the companionship comes to a finale which again resembles Ken Kesey's One flew over the Cuckoo's nest, Dodd with his wife by his side banshies Freddie from his organization finally concluding on where they met in a past life. Its here you see Dodd's inability to control Freddy and Freddy's inability to conform.

It would be a fair assumption to expect Anderson to have lifted the story from a book as The Master feels strongly novelistic in its structure and its dialogue but this just exhibits Anderson's strength in his ability to story tell and his great ability for authenticity. Although the film may not have the great shots that There will be blood was gifted with, it is a far simpler story then Anderson's 2007 hit. There is no underlining meaning, nor is there anything to "get" from the story. Even Anderson's creation of The Cause is not a satire upon Scientology as many claimed it to be. It is a film about characters and its dependency on the study of them. The Master brilliantly exhibits Anderson's maturity and strength as a director, its flawed in places though. Its pace slows down in the middle and needs to get jump started again and time is very confusing in the film. You never know how long Freddy is with The Cause for nor do you get any sense how long he had departed it for. But it cannot be argued that for Anderson to get a film like The Master made, a film that could have been written by Ernest Hemingway and directed by Orson Welles, is a triumphant in a time of CGI and 3D stupidity.  

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