I’ve noted the sensation before now, but it’s back and deeper than ever. My brain has seized. I try to wrap my head around it, think of something to comment on, and *whisp* it’s gone again. I think I’m confused–then I really must be, musn’t I–but I can’t be certain. Is it because I didn’t get it or because I did get it and this is exactly what Paul Thomas Anderson wanted The Master (2012) to do to my fragile mind. I left the theater just an hour ago and all I can think is, “Thank God I’m seeing it again tomorrow.” I think that means I liked it. Right?
Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) is an Id. If an Id drank antifreeze to get right. Quell answers that frequently asked question, “How did they find out they could get high by doing that?” By doing it, my good man, by doing it. [I’m slowly returning to the land of the sentient. I think I may have undergone Processing. [[Don’t worry, you’ll get it later.]]] This guys is like The Stranger if The Stranger were set in eastern Kentucky. Quell gets himself into trouble and stows himself away on a yacht. He wakes up and is taken to The Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), also known as Lancaster Dodd, who is intrigued by Quell and takes him under his wing. With Dodd is his wife Peggy (Amy Adams), son Val (Jesse Plemons), and daughter Elizabeth (Ambyr Childers), and a number of devoted followers that listen and study The Master’s teachings. This mainly includes understanding past lives in order to cure present ills including certain types of leukemia and insanity. Perhaps it’s only certain types of insanity. Presumably, some kinds of insanity are encouraged. He suffers persecution, however, and travels quite frequently to spread The Cause. Effects may include sudden, inexplicable nudity.
Cults are interesting things. They can be dark, creepy, and homicidal like in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) or they can be relatively benign as in The Master. I like my cults benign. But this is not a comedy in the strict sense. Those odd fellows (like myself) that found Boogie Nights (1997) hysterical will also laugh with that eyebrows-raised-half-tickled-half-frightened barking laughter in this one. But there are also notes of satire. The story is unmistakably about [Spoiler–and to those who spoiled this for me, *V*]. I don’t know enough about the source material to claim any closeness, but you can’t mistake the characters who follow. It’s pathetic. Maybe it was the pathos, maybe it was the curly fries, but I felt incredibly sad on the subway ride home. So, unlike Boogie Nights where I remembered the laughs and had only a brief “aw” for the idiot Diggler, The Master left me unable to remember the laughter. Damn you, Memory!
Also unlike Boogie Nights, my head was almost permanently cocked to the right as if to say, “whaaaaaaaaa?” Boogie Nights was, I think we can all agree, a rather typically- (and well-) told story of the rise and fall of a half dozen characters. The Master comes into both Quell and Dodd’s lives near middle and leaves about a year later (I think). So, it’s a character-driven film and those are always difficult for me to take. These kinds of movies require a dynamic, or lack of dynamism, that means something. That’s when people start diving so deeply into subtext that they explain more about themselves than the characters. Sounds great. It’s just not for me. That kind of rectal excavation isn’t interesting or useful–by which I mean “goes somewhere”–but is just a kind of sophomoric wanking. If I wanted to do that I’d start a blog…
But let’s be charitable here. The acting was superb. If Phoenix doesn’t get an Oscar nod out of this, then… Then nothing, there is no way, zero-percent, absolutely impossible for him not to get the nomination. For the win, he’ll have some stiff competition, I’m sure–Daniel Day-Lewis for Lincoln (2012) Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe from Les Misérables (2012)–but this was genuinely great work and right up the Academy’s collective alley. Hoffman has a good chance to grab a nomination himself, but he’s nowhere near as far out on a limb as Phoenix is. Also of Hoffman, and more will be said on this, I might fault on the execution of the character. His charisma is questionable. But that’s all. Hoffman is always great at expressing nuanced emotion and that is true here. Phoenix, though, has crossed a threshold. I’d draw a parallel with Day-Lewis and Gangs of New York (2002) and say it surpasses that. Amy Adams suffered from lack of oxygen for her character. The character is stern and repetitive, which doesn’t allow for much showing off of skills. There was probably a lot more there that should have come into the movie, but didn’t.
[Oops, forgot to mention… 9/15/2012] Something should be said about the music by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead. It really should, you know. It begins, like the movie, as an intense bringer of excitement. It sounds good. Or as Quell might say, “It sounds good!” However, it varies very little. It sets the tone brilliantly, but the tone doesn’t shift. I wonder if this is to blame for some of my problems with the movie. Could the music have taken the edge off? It’s possible. I’ll get back to you on that.
The writing too is basically terrific (Paul Thomas Anderson). I tend to think of dialogue that is too exact–“can not” instead of “can’t”–rings false, but those infractions were fewer than may be and it would appear that my view is not widely held. I think exactitude is only allowed from the witty or ironic for satirical purposes. Beyond that, there are moments drawn up that are just exceptional. When Quell is “informally processed” the scene rolls like a train and is so enthralling (and so well acted) that it sweeps you away. I thought at that moment, “This is awesome.” Most of the story, too, is very neatly done. I views like a novel and that’s impressive in its own right. It’s as though there is so much more that was left out with only the choicest moments selected to create a picture. Marvelous.
Speaking of pictures, the direction is just astounding. I’m afraid I haven’t seen Anderson’s intermediate works–which I regret at this moment, especially There Will Be Blood (2007)–so I can’t make a comparison there. Still, it’s stunning. Tonight, I saw it in Digital and tomorrow I see it in 70mm. Early in the movie I thought how this was like a movie out of the 50’s how Billy Wilder or Elia Kazan would have if they had the film quality to pull it off. I’m not speaking of content especially, but clarity and scope. I think sometimes that some great remakes could be created with that goal in mind. I know that’s blasphemy, but I won’t apologize. The second half becomes less stylized and distinctive and that may play a part in some of my criticisms (below).
But the ending, I think–and this is subject to tomorrow’s re-viewing–was a failure. A harsh word that I rarely use, but I’ll use it now. This movie is clearly attempting something deep and mature. It has all the signs of an attempted masterpiece. That’s shooting the moon and, in that metaphor, Anderson failed to take the Queen of Spades. I fear it is my failure. I fear that I just didn’t get it. If you see the movie you’ll know exactly what I mean by “it.” Still, even if I got that and was deeply touched by it (which was the unmistakable intention), I would say the ending was terribly constructed.
Since this is a character drama, it isn’t really a spoiler if I give you the structure (though I omit the details so that you won’t be fixated or anticipating their occurrence). Story story story, they get to Phoenix, stuff happens, and Quell drives off by himself. Things happen and Dodd calls Quell at a theater saying he (Dodd) is in England and Quell should join him there. Quell does go and the two meet and talk briefly, Quell goes off (signifying an irreparable parting of the ways), and Quell meets a girl, The End (or, more accurately, “The Master”). By having Quell go all the way to England for a 15 minute interview in which nothing new is offered (outside of subtext that I could not decipher), it created a ludicrously brief Act IV (if I counted right) before an insanely brief Act V that left me without much by way of clarity.
That’s it, really, it wasn’t clear. Hence my perplexity. I don’t crave clarity or obviousness. I like my movies subtle. But this isn’t subtlety, it’s subtext. Subtext is a mixed creation allowing of numerous interpretations. Again, that’s fine, but in a character drama it tends to make the experience post-viewing rather than live.
So that’s three problems. Short Acts IV and V and some poor messaging at the end. A fourth is in the groundwork–structure again. The movie is all about the (mild) ups and downs of The Master and The Cause. The Cause keeps chugging along despite these hiccups and there always seems to be a cadre in some city or other that have studied from The Master. At the end of Act III–and I know I’m totally making it up–The Master slips and shows his hand. Our credulity and two characters tell us this through and through, but The Master is always deft and sure enough to silence the critics except once. And this leads to the two truncated endings. That’s a balance problem. Either The Master should have slipped earlier and regained Quell’s loyalty, or later and lost both his credibility and Quell at the same time.
Still, I think I really liked the movie. Thinking back on the performances and the early greatness of the movie, it’s just too good. After tomorrow, I’ll see (and let you know) if I was wrong about the ending. I would still, without reservation, recommend you see the movie.
Wait, did I say “without reservation”? Well, if you are squeamish about seeing the female form, you may want to give it a miss. For the twelve year old boys in the audience, “You’re welcome.”