Movie Review: ‘The Master’ – Nat’s Take

My first reaction to Paul Thomas Anderson’s films is generally mild — I thought Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and Punch-Drunk Love were all okay, but they didn’t blow my skirt up until I rewatched them. I haven’t seen Hard 8, and I really liked There Will Be Blood the first time I saw it. The Master, despite having more in common with There Will Be Blood, nevertheless left me with a “meh” feeling. I wouldn’t recommend it, but if someone had already seen it, I’d tell them to rewatch it, as I plan to. Rating-wise I’m not sure where that places it.

Still, after mulling it over for the 45 minutes it’s been since I left the theater, I’m starting to like it more, and any film that makes me think has done some sort of job.

The story follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a WWII vet whose wants teeter between drinking and screwing, and once one has been satisfied, he rigorously pursues the next. This doesn’t do much for his career as a photographer and later as a field hand, but he does end up as a stowaway on a ship captained by self-described “writer, doctor, nuclear physicist, theoretical philosopher, and, above all, human being” Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Dodd is fascinated by Quell and introduces him to “The Cause,” essentially a cult that believes we need to attain spiritual purity by purging ourselves of negative emotions. One of the ways in which this is done is through “processing,” wherein Dodd asks a series of personal questions designed to antagonize the interviewee and force them to suppress their emotional reactions. While quell gives it his best shot, and is more than willing to attack anyone who defies Dodd, he himself cannot relinquish his base nature.

And here, I think, is the struggle Anderson wants to explore — the old unstoppable force meeting the immoveable object. Dodd’s “tests” seem little more than experiments designed to break Quell’s will and Quell will not be, well, quelled. It’s a very compelling idea: two extremely strong-willed men, one trying to dominate another who refuses to submit. And Anderson varies the formula by pitting Dodd’s charismatic intellect against Quell’s brute force.

However, interesting as this theme is, Quell’s part in the struggle is almost subconscious; for much of the film he seems unaware of Dodd’s attempts to dominate him, and his resistance is all but automatic. Dodd rebuffs him time and again for his “negative emotions” and bestial brutality; Quell just smiles, nods, and never changes. The main conflict of the movie is almost entirely Dodd’s, yet the character we’re stuck with is Quell, whose conflicts are purely physical instead of internal. This is also where I (and I think much of audience) struggle. It’s tough to watch a passive character, especially the protagonist, hold your attention for over two hours.

But on the other hand, I think this passivity is intentional. Quell tries to play the part of a follower, as highlighted in a wonderful sequence where he half-heartedly passes out pamphlets for “The Cause” with such little success that he starts repeating another follower’s sales pitch. In another “test” he stomps back and forth between a window and a wall, forcing himself to feel something different than wood and glass. In yet another he imagines all the women at a seminar naked (or someone does, or maybe they all actually get nekkid, still…). Despite some fabulous boobies, none of it takes, escalating Dodd’s fury.

The point, I think, is that Quell represents the very spirit of humanity that Dodd wishes desperately to suppress but ultimately cannot. But, again, even if Quell is supposed to be an unchanging character, (Phoenix’s performance aside) it gets tiresome. Frustrations escalate for both Dodd and Quell, and it provides the basis for some great sequences, but it’s all variations on a theme. And as much as I love them, I listen to only about 10 of the Goldberg Variations before moving on to some other Bach pieces.

In any event, I’m still on the fence. Phoenix and Hoffman are fantastic. Phoenix is so good that even his slouch steals the show, and his emaciated body evokes the image of a stray dog, fighting out of desperation. Hoffman’s pudginess and wispy mustache only emphasize his energy, and, when challenged, his transformation from composed to furious is frightening. And Amy Adams, whom I have never seen give a bad performance, plays such an icy demon, against type, no less, so well, she somehow steals everything from Phoenix and Hoffman. How wonderful would it have been to see the film through her perspective? And it’s nice to see someone use her skeletally beautiful face to appropriately chilling effect.

Lastly, there’s the Scientology angle. The Master is about Scientology like The Social Network is about Facebook. Maybe even more, as the word “Scientology” is not even brought up. The focus is on the people rather than their creation, and both make a broader point. That, at least, is a definite plus.

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