Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Master: Cult Study Short Circuits

That Powerful Father-Son Conflict Replaces A Coherent Story

     Paul Thomas Anderson has made one movie that floored me, There Will Be Blood (and it should have won the Best Picture Oscar), and two movies that I thought were extraordinary (Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love).  I haven’t seen Hard Eight and I had problems with Magnolia because there was so much story that it felt overstuffed, rather than having a strong through line such as those in Robert Altman’s Nashville or Short Cuts.  

Joaquin Phoenix
     I’ve longed to see The Master since it won director and actor awards at the Venice Film Festival.  (That festival’s rules forbid an entry being selected as best movie if it has won other awards).  Anderson is incapable of filming a generic shot or eliciting anything but at least an interesting performance from his cast members.  These abilities are on full display here with a series of gorgeous images and exacting yet unassuming production design by Jack Fisk and cinematography by Mihai Malaimare that plunges the audience into the late 1940s.  Even the lighting looks like something out of Life magazine from that era, both in the interior and exterior scenes.  Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix give huge performances, though there isn’t enough of an age difference between them and that erodes the father figure-surrogate son conflict.  Yes, one could say that there’s a homoerotic impulse being explored when they wrestle around on the lawn, but Phoenix holds his body in such a peculiar way and the character is such a straight horn dog that I don’t think there really is a sexual undertone to their relationship.

The Dodd Extended Family
     Although it was initially described as a roman à clef about L. Ron Hubbard and the formation of the Church of Scientology, I’m not certain there’s enough information to come out on either side about that because although Hoffman’s character Lancaster Dodd shares a number of biographical details with Hubbard, the movie isn’t really about ‘The Cause’.  It’s about his relationship with Phoenix, who plays a psychotic drifter named Freddie Quell that happens to stow away on a yacht and is taken into Dodd’s confidence.  I wish The Master focused much less on that and much more on an examination of Dodd’s rise to power.  Although Dodd is simultaneously sincere and a huckster, we don’t know how he got to where he is and why (besides charisma) the other characters follow him so intensely.  I wish we saw that part of the story because there isn’t enough information to answer basic questions about it.  There’s conflict and there’s plot, but the story is lacking, which is the direct opposite of Magnolia.

     Laura Dern looks spectacular and gives an excellent performance in a small part as one of Dodd’s main benefactors.  Amy Adams is very good as an iron butterfly trophy wife, though she’s also close in age to Hoffman.  I question the number of curse words as well.  My grandparents were similar ages to these characters and neither they nor their friends ever used the f word in my presence and I don’t believe it here.  I hope that Anderson’s next movie steps aside from the father-son conflict as he did in Punch-Drunk Love and that he finds a way to address the story information more fully in the plot.

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