Saturday, September 22, 2012

Review: "The Master" is an Overlong Love Letter to Your Brain

Left to right: Joaquin Phoenix and W. Earl Brown

It is always tough to respect someone's follow-up to what is perceived as their best work on that movie's own merit. After hitting a formula, you'd expect them to pull it again in a similar vain. For director Paul Thomas Anderson's follow-up to There Will Be Blood entitled The Master, we would expect the loud vibrancy that came with Daniel Day Lewis' haunting portrayal of businessman Daniel Plainview. Instead, we get something more nuanced and different. There aren't any loud bangs or big set pieces burning to the ground. What we get is Joaquin Phoenix humping a pile of sand in the shape of a naked woman. 

Freddie Quell (Phoenix) is a Naval veteran who is returning home only to find that he can't handle life. After a Rorschach test reveals that he is madly obsessed with female anatomy and penetration, he goes on a quest to become a civilized human being. It isn't so easy as he has sex with a salesgirl (Amy Ferguson), assaults a customer (W. Earl Brown), and most of all drinks concoctions that would eventually lead him to befriend Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who is a struggling writer that is creating a cult-like following involving the study of hypnosis. 

Quell becomes Dodd's lab rat for most of the experiments, including one that reveals more about the character. Quell is lonesome for his girl Doris (Madisen Beaty), who he left for this tour of duty. Along with Dodd's wife Peggy (Amy Adams), the Dodds spend the rest of the movie trying to use this knowledge to break him down. Despite Quell's choice to be an obedient patient, he doesn't seem to be giving into Dodd's requests entirely, especially after a brief chat with Dodd's son Val (Jesse Plemons). Yet he still sticks around.

The movie isn't meant to be the big spectacle of There Will Be Blood. None of the characters are as wild and eccentric as Daniel Plainview. No one gets screwed over in terms of oil or obtainable goods. Instead, this is a journey inside the mind of Quell, whose introduction aboard a Naval ship is a haunting one as composer Jonny Greenwood's music plays over in a way that almost feels like a fantasy. Quell is animalistic, getting joy out of the simple sexual and physical desires. He may seem simple, but when he decides to befriend Lancaster after stumbling drunkenly onto a cruise ship, it raises more questions about him.

The brilliance of this movie is in the score. While the action is very subtle, Greenwood's music progressively gets more and more aggressive, however never overpowering the understated vibe of the entire film. We hear loud thuds going faster and the fantasy elements turn into something more neurotic. This progresses nicely with the Quell character and while it manages to maintain this haunting stillness, there is a sense that we are listening to his mind click and clack as Lancaster tries to tear him down. This is the score of a perverted man's mind, and it deserves to be nominated for Best Original Score. With the additional use of tracks like "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree" sung by Beaty), this really does feel like a 1950's throwback that just happens to be full of naked women dancing and a man trying to overpower society.

The real charm to the piece is Joaquin Phoenix, whose amazing performance tows the line into a vague middle ground where we don't know just how dedicated he is to the cause. He even provides a physicality that often sees him tackling police officers like a dog and banging his head against the wall in a frustrated manner. This is the journey of one man trying to maintain sanity that he didn't have at the beginning of the movie. The brilliance is that Anderson never spells things out for us and this causes the Quell character to feel like a slightly more deranged take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's R.P. McMurphy. We never understand his desires directly, but there is a sense that he is trying to tear down the program from the inside.

The other revelation is surprisingly not Philip Seymour Hoffman. While he gives an apt performance that sees a man obsessed with being the big dog, it is his wife that secretly feels like the eponymous master of this tale. Amy Adams plays Peggy in a very homely way that manages to get under your skin and while very subtle, feels like the real tipping point for Quell. Her calmness is more haunting than the vivacity of her husband. She could easily turn on you at the drop of the hat. She doesn't feel possessed by her man, but feels more like the secret spy who steals all of the information to manipulate Lancaster into continuing this charade. It is the most nuanced performance of this movie and probably one that will be unfortunately unappreciated come Oscar nominations.

As for Anderson himself, he has not outdone himself. However, that is not really saying anything when you look at how risky his catalog looks. An epic about porn (Boogie Nights), an experimental art film with loathed comedian Adam Sandler (Punch Drunk Love), and a film that begins with 15 minutes of silence (There Will Be Blood). He pushes the medium in so many directions that he can be forgiven for not making each film groundbreaking. However, that doesn't mean that his craft shows through each time. He continues his fascination of the single take here as he often shows Quell getting into fights with people. These live and die based on the edits, which effectively show a man struggling for acceptance. 

However, it is mostly in the script where things get interesting. This is his most ambitiously cryptic tale to date. He touches on issues involving mind control as well as what drives it. However, he never puts a foot down in either direction, which may seem frustrating, but leaves clues arguing both in favor and against. There are entire parables presented here that provide foreshadowing for future moments. Some of them don't make sense, but they all add a profound nature to what is essentially a quest to dominate others as well as your own mind. This is a visual trick, and one that may be slow and dragging, but leaves you wanting more.

The Master may end up getting a Best Picture nomination just on the simplicity of it being an Anderson film. However, I think that it deserves more. How about some acting nominations for Phoenix and Adams? I would love for Greenwood to finally get some love for this hypnotic and great piece of music. This is a flawed film about a flawed man, but that is what adds to the charm of everything. Phoenix nails the movie in a very nuanced way that may be overshadowed by Anderson's more lively performances, but through subtle progression, is one that is magnetizing. If you can look away (or not blink), I will be impressed. This is a movie created for those that want to dissect cinema, and it may seem more open ended than There Will Be Blood, but that is what makes Anderson a great director. He never settles for convenience. 

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

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