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The Master: Master Class

by Ethan Alter September 17, 2012 4:36 pm
<i>The Master</i>: Master Class

Five years after its release, Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood is looking more and more like one of the few genuine masterpieces of the young century, a film of such remarkable formal discipline, graceful, intensely dramatic storytelling and rich thematic content that it reminds you what cinema is capable of as an art form, as opposed to merely an entertainment delivery service. It's difficult for a filmmaker -- no matter how talented he or she is -- to make a movie that scales those lofty heights more than once during the course of their careers, let alone on back-to-back productions. So when I say that Anderson's latest movie The Master isn't as good as There Will Be Blood, that's somewhat akin to rating Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" just behind the "Mona Lisa." If The Master doesn't resonate as deeply as Blood -- a movie that burrowed so deeply into my mind, I felt compelled to see it at least four or five times in theaters and could probably watch on a 24/7 loop at home if I didn't have to worry about little things like eating and sleeping -- it's still a remarkable film, one whose stature may only grow through the years and multiple re-watches.

The Master is Anderson's third film in a row to plumb the depths of a male psyche that's filled to the brim with rage and bile. His first such "hero" was Punch-Drunk Love's blue-suited businessman Barry Egan (Adam Sandler), followed, of course, by There Will Be Blood's oil tycoon tyrant Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis). Both of those characters at least had outlets for their anger, Barry through a sweet love affair with a doe-eyed woman and Daniel via his single-minded devotion to the business of oil. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), the angry young man at the center of The Master, doesn't have that kind of professional or personal interest to channel his rage towards. A World War II Navy veteran with a serious drinking problem, he merely drifts along on the lower rungs of '50s-era American society, working odd jobs in odd places until his fury inevitably boils over and he has to move onto the next town. It's during one of these forced walkabouts that Freddy impulsively hops aboard a ship that's serving as the temporary home for the family, friends and followers of Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), an author and creator of a new movement that he's christened The Cause. To the surprise of everyone (including themselves), Quells and Dodd hit it off famously and the magnanimous, mustachioed guru takes a personal interest in indoctrinating this loose cannon into his organization, perhaps believing that successfully quelling Freddy's inner rage will be the ultimate proof of the Causes' effectiveness.

Much ink has already been spilled about how closely Lancaster Dodd and The Cause mirror L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology and, watching the movie, the similarities are unmistakable. Sure the details have been altered: Dodd isn't established as having been a successful fiction writer (particularly in the realm of science fiction) before turning to more spiritual pursuits and there's no Xenu-type analogue in the religion he's founded. But like Scientology, The Cause stresses the importance of ridding one's mind of negative emotions and propagates the theory that every individual has lived countless past lives. And like Hubbard, Dodd is a larger-than-life figure who uses his considerable charm and formidable intelligence to compel those around him to follow his line of thinking... even when the substance of he's preaching doesn't completely make sense, something that his own son (Jesse Plemons, perfectly cast as Hoffman's kid... this is an onscreen pairing that has to happen again real soon) is all too happy to point out. And then there's the way Dodd has to take the Cause on the road, going from town to town in search of funding from wealthy patrons, all while trying to stay a step ahead of law enforcement types who have their eyes on his murky financial affairs--a scenario that Hubbard played out in Scientology's early years before it became an established, celebrity-endorsed spiritual movement.

But don't spend too much of The Master pondering how far down the Scientology rabbit hole Anderson ventured to write this movie. The central conflict has less to do with the legitimacy (or lack thereof) of Dodd and his movement than with the battle of wills that develops between the Master and his newest student. In their first meeting, Dodd describes Freddy as an "animal' and the film runs with that idea, positioning Freddy as the unrestrained id to Dodd's more refined superego. Even Phoenix's posture -- slightly stooped, with his arms dangling down loosely at his sides -- seems designed to conjure up the image of a gorilla in the wild. This is the actor's first major screen role since he poured gasoline all over his career and set it on fire in service of Casey Affleck's daring, but misguided mockumentary I'm Still Here and he throws himself into it with the same astonishing commitment that previously fooled the world into thinking he was really giving up acting for a career in rap music. Where the power of Day-Lewis's performance as Daniel Plainview was located in that incredible voice he invented for the character, Phoenix emphasizes Freddy's physicality. Even the act of speaking seems like a major exertion, with Freddy forcing words through his perpetually curled mouth. It's a mesmerizing piece of acting that perfectly complements Hoffman's relaxed, loquacious presence. (Although the longer Dodd spends in Freddy's company, the closer his own anger threatens to bubble to the surface... a no-no when you're religion hinges on keeping a placid, above-it-all demeanor.) While the match-up of these two actors is obviously the main attraction in The Master, it's worth noting the strong supporting contributions made by Plemons, as well as Laura Dern as a believer in the Cause, Rami Malek as Dodd's devoted son-in-law and Amy Adams as the Master's wife and, it's strongly suggested, the real power behind the throne.

Watching The Master, it's amusing to think back to 1997 when Boogie Nights fever seemed to position Anderson as the next Quentin Tarantino, a video brat who would turn his personal obsessions into mainstream entertainment. Instead, in the 15 years since that movie's release, it's almost as if Anderson has actively tried to make anti-commercial vehicles, whether it's a sprawling symphony of despair like Magnolia, an Adam Sandler movie that actual Adam Sandler fans hate like Punch-Drunk Love or an ultimately unclassifiable picture like There Will Be Blood. Even compared to those movies The Master is operating on its own distinct wavelength, so disinterested in typical cinematic conventions that it's seemingly making itself up as it goes along. There's a distinct thrill in watching in watching a movie that's confident enough in the material its presenting that it doesn't constantly feel the need to stop and explain itself. The way Anderson uses silence, reaction shots and even simple cuts to impart information reminds you just how exposition-drenched most modern movies are. And while it's true that The Master is sometimes too abstract and obtuse -- particularly in its final act when Freddy abandons Dodd and his Cause to take care of some personal business that remains somewhat nebulous, despite being at the core of his anger -- the movie's craft (the cinematography, production design and Jonny Greenwood's score are just stellar) and its narrative and thematic mysteries make watching it a mesmerizing experience. If you want to see a master class in filmmaking -- one that demands and rewards multiple viewings -- look no further than The Master.

Look back at the most controversial religious-themed movies of all time.

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