Saturday, September 22, 2012

What's Your Name? Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master (2012) might more accurately have been called The Acolyte or The Unstable Follower. It stars Joaquin Phoenix (the unstable follower), Philip Seymour Hoffman (the Master) and Amy Adams (the Master's Wife and de facto chief of staff). Beautifully photographed? Check. Craftily directed and acted? Check. Set at the end of the Second World War (Asia Pacific War), on a small ship (captained by the Master) and on land in the 1950s USA? Check. Long at 2.5 hours? Check. Main characters kind of ick? Check. Glimpses into cult psychology and brainwashing, drawing out each person behind the persona of his or her name? Check.

Still absorbing this one. The most disturbing scenes involve homemade alcoholic concoctions blended with nasty ingredients like paint thinner. I understand that many veterans turn to alcohol and drugs to address psychic pain, but man . . . horrifying. I've heard tales of Red Army vets drinking jet fuel and going blind; but here, we have an ex-sailor from the US Navy looking mightily messed up, contorted, erratic and bizarre joining a fledgling Scientology-like cult that is like a cerebral reflection of the same, masked behind "rational ideas" that are anything but. To boot, Joaquin's character seems to have gone into the service already damaged -- his father, an alcoholic, is dead and his mother in a mental institution by the time he falls in with "The Cause." He has little or no impulse control going in.

The Master is a psychological drama about two willful men and the people around them. There is a menacing feel throughout much of the film, accentuated by occassionally alarming background music. Overall, the film's ambience reminds me of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968). Some of the push-pull of wills reminds me of the split sides of human nature depicted in the second half of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971) -- primal vs. tamed/trained.  However, on first look I didn't find either of the main characters in The Master (both somewhat demented) that alluring. Amy Adams is particularly good, though, as the person behind the throne keeping the Master more or less "on the good foot," at least when facing the outside world. 

Today's Rune: Growth.    


Adorably Dead said...

Be careful with those Scientology shout outs, they'll have a cease and desist order on you before you know it. It's like their weapon of choice. ;) haha.

Charles Gramlich said...

Phoenix may be the go to guy to play this kind of messed up character. I kind of want to see this.

WAS said...

Thanks Erik, as ever, for your thoughtful review. I saw this one last night and I have to say it is that rarest of things, a Hollywood film (as opposed to movie). When I attended Berklee College of Music I was lured into one of those Scientology “processing” facilities on the ruse that “Chick Corea found it helped his playing,” and experienced first-hand the subtle mix of rejection at any morality, sense or goodness in my decision-making, an “objective personality evaluation” that used a whizzing flying saucer to spit out computer cards with an exceedingly ugly verdict for me, and a hypnotic chant of “we are your only friends you know.” The Master employs all of these devices and more in presenting a scarily accurate depiction of Scientology practices and beliefs, with a healthy dose of the Gurdjidieffian machine-man who needs to be awoken from a deep sleep by staring at a wall for 20 years.

Having said all that, I think that is all just setting for the drama, a fact that the scores of confused reviewers have been confounded by (hasn’t PT Anderson made a career of confounding expectations?) The Master looks sympathetically in fact at “the Cause”, from the narrow and merciless hounding it receives from both within and without to the Christ-like sympathy L. Ron Hoffman has for hopelessly damaged Freddy (Phoenix). And while Freddy’s loyal but feeble attempts to become a cult member in good standing evoke some elements of the cult psychological mindset, the real story here is the utter inability of anyone to work with anyone else in any real or healthy way. The characters are loving, but nobody understands anybody else, and the viewer is forced to see each character create fantasies about the other characters to disguise how huge, complex and unknowable their underlying motivations are. The small and tight-knit religious community (like small and tight-knit communities everywhere) is continually riven with tension and conflict, the dictatorial leader is continually misunderstood, undermined, manipulated and questioned (even his obedient son thinks the whole thing is hogwash), and Freddy’s final inability to bend his will to the people who selflessly put so much time into helping him all call to mind Rodney King’s immortal question: “Why can’t we all just get along?” Throughout the film, sympathetic eyes and experimental techniques seek to transform Freddy the inarticulate and violent hard-core alcoholic, but it all leads nowhere, except in the traces of the human connection, where a heart reached out to others despite everything and something of someone was carried to another person.

Anderson’s unbelievably assured direction meets everyone where they are, creating a place where primitive, real and selfish emotions can be expressed safely, and the result is not black and white, or shades of grey, but an array of too-vivid colors, heavy on the blues. The evocation of 1950 America is stunning, the cinematographic light is startling, and the acting? Amy Adams stole the show for me with so much lurking behind those eyes, but there wasn’t a single false note anywhere. As depressing as the experience often was, every moment felt just right inside the theatre.

Erik Donald France said...

Thanks all for the comments~! WAS, right on. I agree with your analysis about 100%. And, man -- interesing on Berklee. Speaking of Chick Corea, among the coolest things I ever experienced were jazz & blues performances in Roman ruins in the South of France. Would love to transport into those again, beyond the deep blue sleep . . .