Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: The Master

The Master
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Country: USA
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 144mins

I was lucky enough to see the latest befuddling character study from Paul Thomas Anderson in glorious 70mm at The Astor Theatre a couple of months back when the writer/director visiting Australia. It's week-long season at the art deco movie palace has begun and if any readers out there caught it in a regular seasonal screening (digital or 35mm) and have wanted to revisit, then I can't recommend it enough on The Astor's huge screen. The story of a somewhat-cult and the tempestuous young man that drifts through its prologue existence is not one that many would normally associate with the 70mm format - used predominantly in mid-century film on large-scale epics, and then again in the 1980s as a vessel for films dominated by elaborate special effects - but that is perhaps why it is so fascinating. Anderson and his cinematographer Mihai Maliamare Jr, before now known primarily for his work on latter day Francis Ford Coppola titles, have twisted the large-frame celluloid format upon a story that might not otherwise have needed it, but which ends up providing the film with one of its most invaluable assets.

Similarly twisted is Joaquin Phoenix. His performance is all contorted and angular body movements mixed with a near schizophrenic, saliva-lavished take on Anderson's dense dialogue. It's arguable as to what the film is necessarily "about" - part of its charm, for sure - but much like Phoenix in real life and on screen, the film's curiously odd sense of being occasionally finds itself drifting, with some scenes feeling as if they hold little purpose to any grand central idea. The more obvious of The Master's theme is, of course, that of the father and son. Curious then that Anderson made the film about Phoenix's post-war drifter and Philip Seymour Hoffman's leader, when there was a perfectly fascinating turn by Jesse Plemons just waiting in the wings to be navigated. That Hoffman and Plemons share Hollywood's most uncanny familial casting since Mayik Bialik was cast as a young Bette Midler in Beaches only makes me wish the film had found more in their relationship to ponder. Plemons' Val Dodd emerges in the narrative as infrequently as his opinions remain the same. Which is to say, not a lot. There's a fascinating dichotomy in there that I have to admit I wish was a bit more central to the film's core.

Elsewhere, it is very easy to read a literal master versus slave theme into the proceedings, especially given the title. Hell, it practically begs some audiences to take the film's central relationship to a certain place, especially with its echoes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1982 adaptation of Querelle - Joaquin Phoenix's character is a sailor named Quell, hello. Anderson never really delves into anything of a homosexual nature, but the film's angel that war, or perhaps just Quell's own nature, has turned this man into a sexually empty monster is intriguing. As the opening scenes shows Quell attempting procreation with a woman made of sand and creating his own moonshine alcohol, he is probably a man that would do anything for a kick. I can't begrudge the film from not going in this direction or the other in terms of Quell's sexuality - Anderson clearly has other things on his mind, other things that he has touched on in other films - but I did feel at times that Anderson was letting this man off scot-free in this realm.

The Master is really a film about the fringes. It is a film that focuses on men who have found themselves on the fringe of a society that has rejected them in many ways. It's appropriate then that some of the finest work is found outside of the three men central to the film. Amy Adams, as the wife of Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, is a constant fascination of bubbling tension. Her face alternates between dim innocence and keen smarts as she constantly assesses her surroundings. Christopher Evan Welch appears briefly as a questioning dissenter of Lancaster's and in just one scene he marvellously walks a tightrope and breaks the film free of everything that the audience will likely be wishing it would address. While Miliamare's cinematography - and Jonny Greenwood's left of centre take on a traditional string-heavy music score - is perhaps The Master's most prominent technical achievement, I was also deeply fond of Mark Bridges' costume design. From Peggy Dodd's frilly, yet buttoned-up dresses that Michael Kors would describe as "Little House on the Prairie goes boating!", or the masculine-toned suits of Hoffman's Lancaster that strive for an aura of soothing authority, I was constantly hypnotised by Bridges' work. If the film has an unheralded high achiever, then it’s him.

Much has been made about The Master's take on religion, predominantly Scientology. While I think it's impossible to not view the film through that context, I think Anderson and Phoenix are more concerned with telling a story about the invention of a man than the invention of a cult. Phoenix's Quell is somebody entirely lost, adrift in a world that doesn't quite know what to do with him (much like Phoenix himself within the Hollywood system, yeah?) His joining of The Cause is a very literal starting over, with a new mother and father to teach him the ways of the world. And like any child who grows up surrounded by one idea, he rebels. The Master is a dense piece of work from Anderson and it is one that rewards attention, even if the film's occasional lapses in cohesion may elicit a loss of attention in many viewers. The Master strives for more than it achieves, an opinion I also had of There Will Be Blood, but it remains a triumph of ambition. B

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Master has stayed with me for some reason. I did enjoy it while I was watching it as I was trying to figure out what Anderson was trying to say. I have seen it twice now and can't wait to see it again. The film of the year for me along with Lincoln. Yes, Spielberg's Lincoln - his best movie in 20 years.