Monday, September 17, 2012

The Master: A New Film by Paul Thomas Anderson

The title of Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master, a thinly disguised examination of the career of L. Ron Hubbard, the author of Dianetics and creator of the Church of Scientology, might lead you to believe that the film is a biopic centered around one man.  Instead, its narrative revolves around the relationship between the Hubbard character, here called Lancaster Dodd, and Freddie Quell his wayward protégée. Dodd, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is the rosy-cheeked guru of a new cult, and Joaquin Phoenix is a shell-shocked, scrawny World War II veteran whose chance encounter with Dodd while he is taking his formal portrait at a department store where he has landed a job after leaving the V.A. hospital leads to a relationship filled with tension, love, regret and pain for both. When they first meet, their picture session ends in a fight, and their last encounter in the film produces a tearful, angst-ridden version of the song "On a Slow Boat to China,” which Mr. Hoffman sings to Freddie with a sad grandeur that recalls Orson Welles at his imposing best.  It is a singular, unforgettable moment in the film that crystallizes the thwarted love between these two very different men. Dodd is an intellectual mountebank who seems to be convincing himself of his new creed the more he lectures to his converts about it. Freddie is a walking contradiction ruled by an uncontrollable id. At times he is grateful that Dodd has taken him under his wing, but he does not know how to become the perfect acolyte of this new religion. When someone doubts the word of the Master he is quick to let his fists fly and punish any doubter or unbeliever. The film is a brilliant study of the relationship between master and servant; and at times both characters cross the line to become their polar opposites before changing back to their primary archetypal roles.

In addition to the volcanic performances of the two leading men, Amy Adams shines in the role of Lancaster Dodd's ever-pregnant wife, Peggy.  Her performance is unforgettable for its simplicity.  While Hoffman and Phoenix spend the film re-writing the rules of Method acting, Ms. Adams creates a character as rooted as the Earth Mother figure that she portrays.  We remember her intensity but also her clean, non-mannered approach to the role.  A lesser actor would be erased when put side by side with Hoffman and Phoenix.  Ms. Adams is very much in the driver's seat in her scenes, and the result is that her performance is on the par with her male leads.

By now, Paul Thomas Anderson's style is well-known.  As America's true auteur, he creates films that pose questions that may not have answers.  Time after time, his films hide more than they reveal.  In his world there is a sizable unknown component at the heart of his stories that keeps us from getting close to his characters -- and that's exactly where Anderson wants us.  His scripts are often challenging collages that we are allowed to contemplate but not totally comprehend.  His affinity for Magic Realism and Surrealism is always given free rein.  His predilection for the American West, whether geographical, as a state of mind, or as an archetypal component of American cinema is ever present in his films.  In The Master, shot in gorgeous 70mm by the brilliant Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., it serves as a metaphor for the unattainable, as in a key scene where both Hoffman and Phoenix take turns riding a motorcycle in the desert at full speed out to an infinitesimal abstract point in space.

It is that point in space that Paul Thomas Anderson's films often want to reach, and in his best work he succeeds in taking us along for the ride even though we may not always reach our destination.

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