Monday, September 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Master

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master last night and was unfortunately disappointed in a lot of different ways.

First, I saw it in 70mm at the Coolidge Theater. If you need an explanation read Why You Should Go Out Of Your Way To See The Master In 70mm. Basically it's a bigger film format that results in a really crisp and bright image. It's a format that's going away and this might be the last film to use it. I'm no anti-digital snob but digital isn't as good yet (though a true IMAX film is). But while the projection looked great on screen, I don't think Anderson did much with it. When I think of films I've seen in 70mm like Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Ben-Hur, they had big giant scenes. The Master has a couple of them, and they're short. There's a recurring shot of the wake of a boat and it's a glorious blue but...ok. There are a couple of beautiful outdoor scenes in a field or in a desert but most of this film is closeups and medium shots in normal sized interiors such as houses and boat cabins. And most of them are shown from the same vantage point the whole scene, there isn't a real sense of space that's explored at all. Now Paul Thomas Anderson knows a lot more about film than I do so I'm sure everything was deliberately composed to convey some metaphorical point and while this film does look very good, I don't see the real point in filming it in a very expensive format. The first two early screening announcements shown here are both more interesting shots than most of the actual movie.

I've seen the production design praised as well; that it brilliantly captures the period. When Mad Men does this regularly on television, I'm not sure that a few interiors and costumes qualifies as brilliant. Good sure, but not brilliant.

So what about the story? That's where the problem lies. The film opens with Freddie Quell in the South Pacific near the end of the war. A bunch of sailors are screwing around on the beach and then relaxing as they sail home. Freddie gets discharged after a rorschach test and a talk about what we now call PTSD. He's has a few odd jobs and he's an alcoholic, drinking concoctions he makes from his photography supplies or anything else he can find. He has brief sexual encounters and several fights. He's lost.

He stowaways on a boat that's run by Lancaster Dodd. He's an L. Ron Hubbard inspired character who goes by the name Master and is the leader of a cult like group known as The Cause. He takes a liking to Freddie and his concoctions and Freddie is drawn into the group going through various procedures that are meant to help him conquer his inner demons that have been building for trillions of years so he can return to his original state of perfect. Yeah, Dodd is making this stuff up as he goes along as his son eventually says. While Freddie opens up a bit he still drinks and still gets into fights only now it's with people who doubt the Master.

As I write the above it seems like it's describing more plot than the movie had. Most of the rest is repetitive, much as Freddie's processing is. There are some great scenes, with some great performances, particularly the first processing where Freddie opens up and an argument in a the prison where both Freddie and Dodd become undone, but there aren't traditional character arcs. By the end of the two hours and fifteen minutes, it really seems like not much of anything has happened. Now that may well be the point, but an enthralling moviegoing experience it isn't. The score doesn't help. It good at setting mood, but it's very monotonous and the creators apparently wanted just one mood throughout the whole film.

Joaquin Phoenix is Freddie and Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Dodd. Both will probably get oscar nominations. Their roles are big and they have great presence and play off of each other well. They shift from constrained conversation to physical rage, often on a dime. I think Phoenix overdoes it. There's a lot of physicality to the portrayal. Freddie is bent over and mannered and it's not really clear why. I kept getting an Ed Grimley vibe and that's certainly not what was intended. Also I've read a lot of descriptions calling Freddie unpredictable and riveting, but I found neither of those to be the case. He almost always ends a confrontation with violence and almost always ends a quiet scene with a drunken stupor or dream. That's the fault of the script not the actor but I still didn't find it unpredictable.

The supporting cast is also great. I'll see Amy Adams in anything and in this film she plays Dodd's true believer wife. Laura Dern is good in a small role of a follower. Jesse Plemons (of Friday Night Lights and now Breaking Bad) plays Dodd's son and he should make a career out of playing Phillip Seymour Hoffman's younger self or relatives.

I rarely read Rex Reed anymore but he hated The Master. He begins with "I never cease to be amused by the pile of unmitigated crap that gets shoveled off onto the moviegoing public by pretentious critics." and it just gets more entertaining from there.

Eric Melin's review is the best I read. He comes to this conclusion:

"The climax of The Master is unconventional to say the least. In fact, as it was occurring, I had no idea it was occurring; that this was the turning point for these characters. In The Master, there is no catharsis. Here’s what I realized later: Even when real people are presented with choices, they don’t always work out. That essential turning point—the moment that movies thrive on to give audiences the satisfaction of knowing they’ve seen something important; that something life-changing was accomplished—can come and go in real life. The opportunity could be either ignored or have simply run its course. Essentially, nothing has changed. That’s what The Master reveals. This character study is complex, difficult, and nuanced, and it posits a message that’s wholly antithetical to the moviegoing experience: The core of who you are does not and cannot change. It remains the same throughout your existence, no matter what outside forces you come in contact with."

I don't believe that as a philosophy and it's a generous explanation that that's what Anderson was trying to get across, but it's at least thoughtful. Jeffrey Overstreet goes over the story practically scene by scene in A Long Post-Viewing Conversation. Much as I felt above it gets much more out of the story by thinking it through at length than you do while watching it. I saw the film with a group of nine and it's a more interesting conversation than we had after it.

Given the structure of the film and the title, the important line seems to be: “If you figure a way to live without serving a master… then let the rest of us know, will you? You’d be the first person in the history of the world.” Freddie and Dodd are contrasted but they're very similar. Both have violent streaks that they try to control. Both need each other, one as follower and one as leader. Both make no apologies for who they are but at least put on airs about being something else. You can argue if either lives on their own or follows some master. For Freddie this could be Dodd, himself, or drink. For Dodd it could be himself, his cult, or his wife. I don't think it matters. I don't find the question that interesting and the film didn't make it more interesting to me.

I've seen a couple of interpretations of the last scene. Either it's showing Freddie back in his original state, unchanged by everything or it's showing him improved, happy to be on his own and able to laugh at what he's been through (which at one point Dodd says is the secret of everything). Personally I just though it should have ended with him saying "I was cured all right!"Update: Criticwire collects The Best 'The Master' Reviews So Far.

From that I found this review by Jim Emerson: "While working on this post, I read that, at the Venice Film Festival press conference, Anderson described a work process (not "processing") that resembles Malick's: he wasn't sure what he had, or what the movie was about, when he got into the editing room, but wound up stripping away almost everything that didn't have to do with the relationship between Freddie and Dodd."

Dana Stevens watched it a second and third time. I've only seen it once but I agree with this sentiment:

"But ultimate meaning aside, what made revisiting The Master such a joy was the nuts-and-bolts details of it, the way the film’s many moving parts shifted each time. Scenes that had seemed inscrutable on the first go-round blossomed into sense. Formerly insignificant moments migrated to the foreground, while other scenes that had felt integral suddenly seemed extraneous. This kaleidoscope effect isn’t some magical quality inherent to The Master, of course—it’s what happens when you revisit any work of art that’s formally inventive and thematically rich. But the truth is that such works don’t come along all that often, and part of the fun when they do is to keep on turning the kaleidoscope to see what new patterns emerge."

She then goes into detail about the party scene and what more she got out of repeat views and I'm not impressed.

No comments: