Cresci Reviews…The Master
Our resident film critic, Michael Cresci, is transporting his (non) award winning film review blog, “Cresci Reviews…” to its permanent new home, The Waiver Wire! You can also hear Michael Cresci and co-host Vinny Ginardi talk movies and television on their Waiver Wired podcast, “Short Commercial Break“. To read previous reviews click here!
There are movies and there are films. Transformers is a movie. Mulholland Drive is a film. A variety of great movies (e.g. The Godfather, The Dark Knight, Looper, In Bruges, The French Connection, 12 Angry Men) can be called both. I bring up this distinction because until now, Paul Thomas Anderson has made films which could be classified as both great films and entertaining movies. His two most accomplished films, Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood (each are absolutely must see American classics), both balance big ideas and artistic intention with popcorn ready moments and water cooler aspects. Punch Drunk Love leans more towards the movie end and Magnolia more towards the film end but they still walk the line that many of the best movies do. His newest film, The Master, is purely a film in every sense. It’s abstract, experimental, and destined to enrage the average movie goer due to lack of narrative thrust/payoff. It’s also a brilliantly acted character piece with some great moments. The Master is not going to populate many movie libraries and it has its fair share of problems (namely its inaccessibility and lack of plot) but it’s a complicated, thoughtful work by one of the best filmmakers working today and it’s definitely worth the time of anyone looking for a serious film that will work their brain.
The best place to start when discussing The Master is its two leads. Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie, a WWII veteran who’s suffering from PTSD and extreme alcoholism, and whose violent tendencies are preventing him from reintegrating into society. He’s got the nifty ability to make booze out of just about anything, especially if that anything is a toxic solution like paint thinner. Phoenix is a sure fire Oscar nominee (or at least he was until he called the award “bullshit”) for the subtlety he brings to his off kilter character. Freddie is like a caged animal, never quite at ease, not safe to be around and seamlessly moving from the need for companionship to violence and anger in the blink of an eye. He’s a man lost, with no idea what he needs to be happy and unable to be trusted in any capacity. Phoenix doesn’t play him “movie crazy” the way many actors might have. Freddie’s tics and mannerisms are understated and the way Phoenix melts into the character, his slightly hunched back, his slurred speech, his eyes suggesting constantly shifting emotions, is incredibly impressive. He gets to play off of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s enigmatic self-help guru a la cult leader, Lancaster Dodd. Dodd has his own frightening temper but his facade is one of charm, intellect and eclecticism. He introduces himself as, “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher” and a hopelessly inquisitive man. This, in many ways defines his character (or at least my take on the character) in that he juggles all these things he wants to be but is himself lost. He wants to be an enigmatic leader with respected ideas and the details of that system are secondary. This is highlighted in scene where a follower questions him on a minor wording change in his second book, prompting rage from Dodd. His disciples take his word for gospel to the point that he is almost trapped by them. This is complicated by the presences of his strong willed and manipulative wife, played brilliantly by Amy Adams.
The relationship between Freddie and Lancaster is the heart of the film. In lieu of a plot, Anderson explores the screwed up, hopelessly codependent relationship between the two men. Each is looking for something out of the other, but isn’t sure exactly what that something is. Anderson uses their relationship to explore a lot of ideas. The early buzz on this film was that it was going to be a takedown piece on Scientology. While it certainly uses the cult/religion/insane organization as a reference point for Dodd’s “The Cause”, Anderson is more interested in the nature of cult, faith, and the men who gain a following for the espousal of a belief system. And his artistic interest doesn’t end there. There is a lot going on under the surface in this film. Dodd reiterates several times that Man is above the “animal kingdom” and while this seems like an innocuous part of his doctrine it’s actually a hinting at the film’s interest in the nature of man. In many ways Freddie represents the animalistic side of humanity; Lancaster seems to be almost drawn to this. The Master explores the things that give humans their humanity and the things we create to try and prove we’re somehow different. This is just one reading of the film but I share it to illustrate the sort of movie going experience that comes with checking out The Master.
The film’s lack of a plot definitely affects its likability. Because the audience never gets their bearings it’s impossible to get into autopilot and absorb the film, almost definitely Anderson’s intention. By keeping us at arm’s length, The Master forces us to consider what’s going on and what it means, and it also allows him to focus on his two leads in relation to each other rather than external forces. Still, it’s hard to think of a Friday night where I’d make popcorn and pop this into my DVD player. The abstract and dense nature of the movie make it hard to love and at times it feels aimless and slow. There are, however, no meaningless scenes- whenever the leads are interacting it’s captivating, but there’s a noticeable lack of payoff for many of elements introduced early on and the film lacks any catharsis in the traditional sense.
On the flip side, the film is chock full of great moments. There is a point in the film when Lancster, his daughter, her boyfriend and Freddie are driving motorcylces in the desert and Freddie simply drives off and doesn’t return. It’s a strange scene but it’s beautifully shot and oddly satisfying. Freddie’s ability to come and go like a stray dog is the perfect embodiment of his character. A scene early on where Lancaster puts Freddie through “informal processing” is also riveting in an intimate way. Amy Adams excels in a small role and raises a lot of questions about Lancaster’s character and her role in the cultish aspects of The Cause. Her interactions with both Freddie and her husband are also extremely watchable.
I didn’t necessarily like The Master, but I certainly appreciated it. It’s the sort of movie that had me thinking for days and trying to figure out its layered meanings. The performances also stuck with me and allow the film to be a bit more memorable than it might have been otherwise. All in all I could 0nly recommend this movie to certain people. Do you want to be challenged by your films, potentially walking out dissatisfied and puzzled but left with some intellectual stimulation or are you only interested in the kiss kiss bang bang, fun of seeing a movie? I personally have room in my heart for both so I’m glad I saw The Master, but just like the film itself, there is no right answer. Just pain, confusion and whole lot of thought.