Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Birthday Take: Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master" (2012)

Joaquin Phoenix in The Master
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Joaquin Phoenix
Born: October 28, 1974 (41 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor (nominated) as Freddie Quell in The Master

The Take

By this point, it seems redundant to mention the impact that The Master has had on me. For starters, it was the main influence for starting The Oscar Buzz. It was also a film that I rallied endlessly for during its run, even wondering why Joaquin Phoenix was going to lose against Daniel Day Lewis (Lincoln) in the Best Actor field. While I have come to a more rational place with my feelings about those events, it's hard to shake off the one performance that not only resonated with me, but quickly added to one of my favorite films of the decade so far. The Master is an experience of a film, and it's largely thanks to Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman's chemistry. Some could call it boring and pretentious, but I am not one of those. Maybe that makes me boring and pretentious, but I figured that I would explain the film's impact for those coming to this cold of my blog's induction.

In the eye of this hurricane is director Paul Thomas Anderson, who was coming off of There Will Be Blood; arguably his greatest film (I say arguably because The Master is my favorite). Before that film, he was a mixture of ensemble casts and dark comedy with films like Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love. Now he was a prestigious face that could make complicated dramas that put him in the comparison league of Robert Altman. To say the least, he didn't do himself any favors with The Master, which saw him continue down the rabbit hole and into a more mystical and dreamlike state as he took on "Scientology" in guise of a cult, lead by Hoffman. I personally don't see much connection, but that's mostly because I see this as a story of Phoenix trying to improve himself through religion. Most would try to apply a gay subtext, but I do think that Anderson's direction reflect more of a loneliness and longing for that female companionship; as if World War II messed up Phoenix's character.

Then again, Phoenix's character is a mess in a lot of impractical ways. He creates his own alcohol and cannot hold down a job due to his temperamental state. He can't return home for fear of disappointing the one woman that he loves. Unlike most performances, there is a convincing nature to Phoenix that makes you believe that he's unstable. I know that most people turn to religion to find that anchor, and Phoenix is no exception. I buy into his desperation because he is so edgy when things don't work perfectly. In the famous processing scene, he slaps himself repeatedly when he fails to do it properly. I believe that there's some desire to find that spiritual guidance that drives his character. His outbreaks are a sign of his frustration when it doesn't happen.

It's a complicated character that I think is hard to fully understand. It's generally why The Master works so well. Probably my favorite scene of the bunch however is when Phoenix is arrested. As he enters his cell, he has his biggest breakdown when he bangs his head on a prison cot and smashes his toilet. There's no dialogue. The performance is as complicated and visual as Lewis at his best in There Will Be Blood. It's a frustrating character that pays off nicely. For those expecting deep commentary on cults, this isn't going to do much good. For those looking for a film that captures the desperation that some have in regards to religion, this may be closer to your interests. There's a lot that can be interpreted in this film, and I hope that this piece reminds you of why I am so attracted to its mysticism.

This isn't the last Anderson-Phoenix film to come out. You may very well remember Inherent Vice from last year. There's chances that they'll work together in the future. While I don't think that the 2014 film works as well as this, there's no denying that they have a certain chemistry together that is unlike anything else that either have done. There's insanity that is perfectly balanced by great direction. It's hard for me to think of too many actors as great as Phoenix right now because Phoenix is at a point where he is fearless and doesn't care about choosing roles that are against better interests. It's this type of thinking that gives us work like Her and I'm Still Here. I am thankful that he's going through this period, if just because it's given us some of the best cinema in recent years. If only The Academy will forgive him for some nasty comments, maybe we'll see him back at the Oscars sooner than later.

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