Sunday, August 26, 2012

First Glance: "The Master"

Last Tuesday's benefit screening at the Castro Theater was a mob scene. Web tickets sold out in advance, and the theater held on to just 200 at the door. 

At 5:30, two-and-a half hours before the official showtime, I got into a line which coiled up Castro Street all the way around onto 17th, several storefronts down. Fortunate enough to get one of the last tickets, I walked to the end of an even longer long line (behind all the people who had purchased tickets in advance) and waited another hour. 

When I finally got inside, I secured the best spot I could - an aisle seat on the far left of the theater, many rows back - and waited. 

Eight p.m. passed, then 8:05, 8:10... the Wurlitzer played on, the collective anticipation grew and the capacity crowd buzzed, until the curtains finally opened around 8:20, to loud cheers.

What was all the excitement about?  

Paul Thomas Anderson is back.  

The most important American filmmaker of his generation, who wrote, directed, and produced three ambitious, eye-opening movies ("Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "There Will Be Blood") before the age of 40, is about to release his first film in five years - "The Master."

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, an aimless World War II veteran running from himself and his past. Freddie's very appearance is off-center:  his nose is askew, he has a big cut above his lip, talks as if he has marbles in his mouth, walks with a slouch in ill-fitting clothes, and often seems disconnected from his surroundings. 

Early in the movie, Freddie brews concoctions in test tubes. When one of his human guinea pigs gets sick, he flees the scene of the crime and ends up on the ship of Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

Dodd considers himself "a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher." He is charismatic and august, with a resonant voice (Hoffman cited Orson Welles as an influence on this role) and a heightened sense of self-importance - the words "A gift to homo sapiens" appear on one of the introductory pages of his second book. He is also captain of the ship and the center of attention in every group setting. 

Anderson and Hoffman have sown ambiguity about what Dodd and his religion ("The Cause") represent. They've said that Dodd isn't a straight stand-in for L. Ron Hubbard, and "The Cause" isn't a direct representation of Hubbard's baby, Scientology. While it's believable that Dodd is a composite character, he shares with Hubbard the leadership of a cult, and the practices of Scientology bear a strong resemblance to the particular brand of hucksterism that dominates "The Master." 

Like Hubbard, Dodd operates from his ship. Early on, Dodd's wife tells Freddie that they spend much of their time on the water because "people who are scared attack him [Dodd] when he's on land."    

Dodd claims that his religion can help people overcome difficult pasts. He talks of "correcting the mind's flaws" and "bringing it back to its inherent perfect." Followers onboard Dodd's boat listen to tape loops (that say "man is not an animal; you are not ruled by your emotions") and undergo "processing," a technique similar to auditing that offers up one of the movie's most pivotal scenes between Freddie and Dodd.   

In Freddie, Dodd finds a pet project. In addition to exceptional family dysfunction, Freddie has PTSD from World War II, a lust for liquor, and a violent temper. He is the animal that Dodd hopes to "cure" through the application of his theology. 

Freddie's depth of dedication to "The Cause" is hard to discern. Unmoored, he drifts from one moment to the next, so even as he cooperates with Dodd's rigorous (perhaps even "sadistic") exercises, and pummels dissidents, you can't tell if he's going along to get along or if he really buys in.

As the battle for Freddie's soul drives the plot, there's a panoply of rich visual images helped along by the 70mm film gauge. Interpersonal relationships are central to the story, so the camera captures a lot of close-ups of characters against blurred backgrounds. There are great tracking shots, exquisitely composed wide perspective views, long, narrow shots with depth, and big, open, panoramic spaces. 

The music (by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, who also scored "There Will Be Blood") perfectly evokes the eerie feeling of cult behavior with spare, dissonant mixes of cellos, oboes, clarinets, and percussion reminiscent of Tom Waits, minus the vocals. 

What the movie doesn't have is easy answers.  

The ending loops back to the beginning, but it's not entirely clear (to me, at least) what it all means; Anderson doesn't tie it up in a bow. 

One scene seems to hint that Dodd (Hubbard?), the famous writer, may be dictating his wife's words. Another suggests that Dodd's endless patience with Freddie is more emotional than scientific in nature.

Also, Hubbard was a Navy veteran (like Freddie) and quack (as Freddie is in the beginning of the movie, with his test tube brews). And other than a little drinking, Dodd seems to keep his id firmly in check. All of which made me wonder...are Freddie and Dodd two different sides of Hubbard? Is Freddie the naked embodiment of Hubbard's hidden, primal self
In short, I walked out of the theater with a lot of questions and speculation.

And that's ok. 

In an age dominated by sound bites, CGI, and Kim Kardashian, Anderson has made another movie for thinking people. He has entertained us for over two hours with visually arresting, finely-acted, character-driven filmmaking that's scaled up without the cheap and numbing gimmicks that most blockbusters rely on. 

"The Master" was a rewarding enough ride that I'll be coming back for another viewing when it's in wide release, to see if I can fill in the blanks - or not.


  1. Perceptive review of an intriguing movie--I'm glad the unjustly ignored Joaquin Phoenix has a role he can get his teeth into, and that masterly Hoffman's talents can expand and shine. Looking forward very much to seeing this.

  2. Absolutely great review, even with the spoiler. Makes me want to beg my wife to let me take her to the movies...

    Also really makes me want to see Magnolia again.