Sep. 26, 2012 - Issue #884: Strangelove
The MasterA lot of guys came back from the war a little messed up, but what messed up Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) must have started long before he went to sea. He father died from drink and his mother wound up institutionalized; Freddie boozes with an uncommon passion for oblivion and responds to the world with equal parts naïveté and rage. In early scenes of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, we see Freddie drain something out of a torpedo and a little later get creative with darkroom fluids. He can make some kind of barely digestible homebrew out of just about anything; this is one of Freddie's genuine talents, the other being portrait photography, though he loses his first postwar department store job when he gets into a fight with a customer for no apparent reason. The Master is, among other things, a portrait of Freddie; so much of this picture is made of portraits, haunting images of heads and shoulders, captured by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare in gorgeous, dizzyingly detail-saturated 65mm images that render every wrinkle, blink and lip-tremble as dramatically as the movement of armies across a battlefield. Indeed, faces, and the minds behind the faces, are battlefields upon which wills are bent and self-realization is a merciless, violent endeavour.
Always in a gorilla hunch and cradling his injured kidneys, Freddie moves from job to job, place to place. He shambles; he is a shambles. Until, in 1950, he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), author, self-declared scientist, what we now call a New Age guru, and a fictional figure many have pegged as a stand-in for Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. Freddie stows away on Dodd's borrowed yacht and is immediately taken under Master's wing. Freddie and Dodd recognize each other as the unlikeliest of kindred spirits (literally; they're sure they met in a another life), chosen father and chosen son, another of Anderson's surrogate families (see Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, et cetera). Dodd likes Freddie's hooch and malleability; Freddie likes Dodd's attention and affection. Freddie submits himself to "processing," to answering Dodd's questions, many of them bringing up painful memories, a bastard of psychoanalysis and past life-regression hypnosis. (This scene, the two men below deck, with only a microphone between them, with the focus so shallow that all there ever is on screen is one furiously alive face, is itself one of the most riveting pieces of cinema you'll see this year, I promise.) Central to Dodd's theories is the idea that man is not an animal, but Freddie is about as animal as any man can get. He's also devoted to Dodd, at least until he can't take it anymore. These men need each other, and this film is about the intensity and eventual collapse of their codependency.
There's so much to be said about The Master, its fusion of classicism and narrative idiosyncrasies; its shifts in rhythm, its silences and music; its commentaries on religion, state and commerce; its slips into reverie; its sensual beauty and monumental sadness; its performances, perhaps most of all: Hoffman's mesmerizing, Wellesian hybrid of hysteria and colossal confidence, and Phoenix's go-for-broke yet unnervingly real embracing of alcoholic derangement, childish longings and broken masculinity. (A key visual motif: the image of Officer Freddie on some beach in the Pacific, snuggling up to a woman sculpted from sand, all generous breasts and spread legs, Freddie's feminine ideal—until the tide sweeps her away.) The film will draw different ratios of unease and awe in different viewers, but I feel no reservations about called The Master a masterpiece, with all the provocations and points of contention that term implies.
Opens Friday, Sep 28
Directed by: Paul Thomas Anderson
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