Friday, October 26, 2012

The Master - Theatrical Review

Release Date: September 14, 2012

"The Master" is a tragic misstep in the otherwise near flawless career of director P.T. Anderson.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: The Landmark West L.A.
Time: 10:10 pm October 10, 2012
Projector Type: 70mm Film Print
Film Rating: R
Film Runtime: 2 hr 17 min
Studio: The Weinstein Company

Loves: Paul Thomas Anderson, Boogie Nights, Magnolia
Likes: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Punch Drunk Love   
Neutral: There Will Be Blood
Hates: Wasted potential    
Approved by: The head Scientologist guru, Tom Cruise

World War 2 has finally come to an end and able-bodied seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is discharged from duty after being diagnosed with a post traumatic stress disorder. Using special alcoholic mixtures, Freddie loses himself in a sea of alcohol bouncing from one job to the next until one day he comes across Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man with many credentials, but most notably the founder and spiritual leader of the religious group known as The Cause. Dodd becomes fascinated by Freddie and brings him into the fold to attempt and free him of his demons while also struggling to fight off the constant attack of naysayers towards his religion.

There is no denying that director Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) is one of the best and most talented filmmakers of our generation. His films are often challenging but always rewarding, they appear pretentious at first but are later revealed to have many layers of depth, they are highbrow but still remain easily accessible, they have characters who are deeply flawed yet remain extremely relatable, but most of all they display the immense amount of skill the director has behind the camera. His films are not for the casual movie-goer, they often require the audience to be on a different level of consciousness in order to be fully appreciated and his latest film "The Master" is yet another addition to his growing legacy of difficult to love but easy to dismiss features.

Lancaster Dodd bears a striking resemblance to another prolific author.

Unfortunately the film also carries the dubious distinction of being the first film in his career to lack nearly all of those qualities and instead we are treated to a film with  a compelling collection of ideas that are all fueled by a hopelessly directionless narrative that ultimately begets a sterile and unfulfilling film experience. The greatest failing of "The Master" however lies in how its first two thirds lead the viewer down a path which appears to hold answers to its many intriguing questions regarding the power of religion and its effects on a deranged mind then intentionally comes off the rails with a non sequitur conclusion that renders the entire film nearly pointless.

The glue holding this thing together is without a doubt the typically well drawn characters found in all PTA films and the usual cadre of talented actors he acquires who bring them to life. The character of Freddie is without question one of the most mesmerizing characters put on film this year. His odd idiosyncrasies and disturbing nature make him instantly irresistibly fascinating. Most viewers will be dazzled and perplexed by Freddie's odd (and sometimes psychotic) behavior, but the true allure comes from Joaquin's dedication and how he throws himself unabashedly into the role. Watching him you don't get the feeling you are watching an actor reading lines from a script, you are watching a true artist who has devoted every ounce of his being to his art.

The cinematography is truly gorgeous.

The same can be said of Philip Seymour Hoffman in the role of Lancaster Dodd. While he wasn't presented with quite as rich a character as Phoenix was, Dodd as well as Hoffman's portrayal of the man is nonetheless engaging to watch. He displays this constant quiet calmness about the character while also appearing as though he can burst out in a fit of rage at any moment (which we see a handful of times). The true magic of "The Master", and both Phoenix's and Hoffman's performances, are whenever the two men share a scene together the results of which can only be described as extraordinary.

In one of the best strictly actor driven sequences in any film this year, we are shown a first rate display of this fact when we are first introduced to the technique called "Processing", a method used to induct new members into The Cause. Both actor's give career high performances during this powerful scene where we see Dodd pushing Freddie with a series of questions that start out fun and lighthearted but quickly turn into deep soul searching inquiries into his past. Phoenix's intensity, focus and determination is simply awe inspiring and it is difficult to not feel just a little bit sad for Freddie despite the fact that he is a scoundrel. If Phoenix doesn't at least receive a nomination for best actor for his performance here then there is something seriously wrong in Hollywood.

Freddie is one troubled dude.

If you haven't been able to tell yet, the acting is not the issue with PTA's latest cinematic endeavor. From the two lead actors to all the supporting cast around them comprised of Amy Adams as Dodd's wife, Jesse Plemons as his son and a slew of walk on parts, everyone was bringing their "A" game for this one. In fact, one might say that with such fantastic performances, it is somewhat of a tragedy they were squandered in a film that really didn't deserve such grand work. The real tragedy though is the amount of potential there was in the many ideas behind the story and how they were literally just tossed to the side for a conclusion that quite literally made the entire exercise seemingly pointless.

Much has been said about the "possible" underlying inspiration that the religion of Scientology has had on PTA when writing the film. There have been plenty of denials from the fine folks at The Weinstein Company that there isn't any connection but the truth lies in what is on screen in the end and there is no denying the influences that the immensely secretive religion had on this film's director. From Hoffman's more than passing resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, the fact that the film takes place in 1950 which is when Scientology was founded, how both the character of Lancaster Dodd and L. Ron Hubbard spread their gospel through their written works and the similarities shared between both organizations in how they are attacked by countless doubters and naysayers, there is no denying that "The Master" is more than just influenced by the life and times of Hubbard, but can almost be considered an unofficial biographical feature on the man.

Dodd tends to his flock.

With such a golden opportunity to explore the reclusive world of Scientology in a rather tasteful and indirect manner, you would think this would be a film filled to the brim with all sorts of insightful examinations. Unfortunately that wasn't the goal of PTA, he was more content to focus on this admittedly intriguing but ultimately pointless relationship between Freddie and Dodd that literally goes nowhere. It becomes frustratingly evident that the ambitions of the director don't meet the potential of the material he has given to himself. It is difficult to fathom what his decisions were and why he made them, but regardless the finished product feels like a shell of the content it possesses.

As unfortunate as that missed opportunity is, the real problem with "The Master" has nothing to do with the wasted potential of it's subject matter. The real culprit is the relationship between Freddie and Dodd and where it doesn't go. For the first two thirds of the film it all works, everything. The acting, the directing  and overall flow of the film appeared to building to this crescendo, some sort of revelation or important discovery either in Freddie's life or Dodd and his life's work. Both men have substantial baggage and both are using each other in hopes of finding a way to alleviate what ails them. Freddie so badly wants to return to the woman he abandoned and Dodd wants both his followers and non-believers to just accept his word without question. Freddie sees Dodd as his possible salvation and Dodd sees Freddie as the perfect subject to prove his theories do work miracles. But just when the film is getting closer to a final answer for both men it just simply ends with not so much as a whimper.

Mrs. Dodd expresses her concerns to Freddie.

As frustrating as this may be, a quote from PTA himself reveals this to be his ultimate plan, "By the end nobody really has an epiphany. They don't really go anywhere. They start the same and end the same". By that account this movie is meaningless. With no character growth and an outlining story that has no real bearing on anything that happens to anyone in the film, it begs the question as to why it even exists at all? It clearly had a lot of love put into it by both the actors and filmmakers but it doesn't seem to provide any real reason for existing.

The film feels like this really bad joke by the time it is all over where the audience just sits there and wonders what the hell just happened. After Freddie and Dodd's final conversation, it isn't too far of a stretch to imagine most audiences being outright upset that they just spent nearly two and a half hours watching this thing that was essentially constructed to bring up intriguing issues with contemplative questions but never bothered to even think anyone would want the answers or at least a conclusion of any sort.

Both actors are at the top of their game.

In the end "The Master" is a film filled with complex characters amidst a unique and compelling backdrop which brings into the forefront one of the most recognized and most secretive religions/organizations in the world today. But it finds someway to make all of it meaningless by taking those characters and giving them no sort of purpose whatsoever and relegating its intriguing premise to nothing more than an afterthought used primarily as a motivation to create conflict and heartache which never gets resolved or recognized. There are many great things about "The Master" that most cinephiles will cite as reasons to look past its few but crucial failings (the beautiful cinematography, the acting, the hypnotic score by composer Jonny Greenwood), but sadly this still remains the most disappointing film in the career of one of the most prolific and visionary filmmakers working today.



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